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People to the Power

Glen Wilson/Warner Brothers

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

“Judas and the Black Messiah” – which retells F.B.I. informant Bill O’Neal’s (LaKeith Stanfield) ascension within the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968 leading up to the bureau’s assassination of chapter chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the following year – often feels like a companion piece to Spike Lee’s 2018 “BlacKkKlansman.”

In the same way David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” come off as companion pieces, “Judas” and “BlacKkKlansman” often strike as two sides of the same coin. Whereas the Spike Lee Joint depicted law enforcement infiltration for the greater good, Shaka King’s sophomore feature shows the exact opposite.

The reflexive comparison that “Judas” invites is not apropos, given that the story it tells echoes last year’s Black Lives Matter protests: decades of excess police violence against the Black community with impunity, for the sake of maintaining status quo, and the Black community finally snapping after having endured endless injustices. Yet “BlacKkKlansman” immediately comes to mind, as if Hollywood is only comfortable addressing the racial inequities of here and now from the safety of a distance.

It’s difficult to discern if the film’s persuasiveness has more to do with Hampton’s real-life homilies or the screenplay by Mr. King and Will Berson. It’s by no means a dig at the film, but its own artificiality and fictionality are only heightened by Mr. King’s incorporation of archival documentary footage in the end. This is indeed an important history lesson, but “Judas” also signals that its subject matter is a thing of the past and absolves its viewers from any soul searching for their own complicity in systemic racism.


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