Review: Judas And The Black Messiah : Pop Culture Happy Hour Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Black Panther Party's Illinois chapter, was just 21 years old when he was killed during a police raid in 1969. In Judas And The Black Messiah, he's given the cinematic treatment via a stirring performance by Daniel Kaluuya. The new film directed by Shaka King focuses on Hampton's activism and how it made him the target of the federal government. The Judas in this story is the FBI informant who played a crucial role in Hampton's death: William O'Neal, portrayed deftly by LaKeith Stanfield.
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'Judas And The Black Messiah' Melds The Personal And Political

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'Judas And The Black Messiah' Melds The Personal And Political

'Judas And The Black Messiah' Melds The Personal And Political

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Black Panther Party's Illinois chapter, was just 21 years old when he was killed during a police raid in 1969. In "Judas And The Black Messiah," he's given the cinematic treatment via a stirring performance by Daniel Kaluuya.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

The new film, directed by Shaka King, focuses on Hampton's activism and how it made him the target of the federal government. The Judas in this story is the FBI informant who played a crucial role in Hampton's death - William O'Neal, portrayed deftly by LaKeith Stanfield. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about "Judas And The Black Messiah" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me and Stephen, from his home in Washington, D.C., we have J.C. Howard, a producer of NPR's TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. Welcome back, J.C.

J C HOWARD, BYLINE: Hello. Thank you for having me.

HARRIS: And also joining us from his home in Alexandria, Va., is Ronald Young Jr. Ronald is an associate producer of the new VPM and Witness Docs podcast "Seizing Freedom." Hey, Ronald.

RONALD YOUNG JR, BYLINE: Hello, hello. Thanks for having me.

HARRIS: Well, "Judas And The Black Messiah" is told primarily from the point of view of an FBI informant, William O'Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. O'Neal begins working with the agency after being arrested for committing a crime while impersonating an FBI agent. Roy Mitchell, an actual FBI agent, played by Jesse Plemons, offers him a deal. If he infiltrates the local Black Panther Party and provides intel, the charges will be dropped. Now, while William and Roy are working together, Fred Hampton - played by Daniel Kaluuya - donning a very thick Chicago drawl...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...Is mobilizing his party members and attempting to forge alliances with other activist organizations so that they can provide food, education and health services to the city's poor. He also meets and falls in love with Deborah Johnson, a poet and activist played by Dominique Fishback, who you may remember as Darlene in the HBO series "The Deuce." The cast also includes Martin Sheen hamming it up in many layers of makeup as J. Edgar Hoover.

The screenplay for "Judas And The Black Messiah" is a result of several years of attempts by various parties to get a Fred Hampton movie made, at first with very little interest from studios. Eventually, this project landed with director Shaka King, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Will Berson, a comedy writer. Now, this is King's biggest project to date. He previously directed the 2013 indie stoner comedy "Newlyweeds," along with some short films and TV episodes.

So this is not your typical biopic. It focuses on a very small slice of Fred Hampton's life. And I'm curious to hear what you all think about it. Ronald, let's start with you. What were your initial thoughts on this film?

YOUNG: I really, really liked it. I was surprised by how much I liked it. I expected to like it. But as I sat there, I was really captivated by the story. There's not much told about Fred Hampton, so it draws you in with the story and the legend of this man who's drawing all these groups together in order to fight the man and fight the oppressor, which is good, but just the performances themselves - watching Daniel Kaluuya's performance from the minute he's on screen is just captivating.

But it wasn't just him. It was as much an ensemble performance watching even the big actors and the smaller Black Panthers that were around him in Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, Darrell Britt-Gibson - all of them coming together. There was something about watching not just the struggle and them trying to fight the man, but watching the joy that they had in camaraderie in fighting together and being together and all of them working toward this goal. The story was just amazing. I was sucked right in, captivated by the whole thing. I wish there was a sequel.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Wait. A - Well, you mean that would, like, focus on another Black Panther instead? Because, obviously, we know how it ends, unfortunately.

YOUNG: Obviously. But it just...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: I felt myself sitting here wondering if I could hear more stories from this world, even though, I mean, I know we live in this world, and obviously, I know what the stories are.

HARRIS: Right.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

YOUNG: But just thinking more and more about everyone around them and hearing more about them - I wish they had unpacked those stories a little bit more.

HARRIS: Yeah. I will say, one of the things that I sometimes found a little bit confusing was I felt like some of the side characters you mention, like the ones played by Ashton Sanders and Algee Smith especially - they play two Black Panther members who, eventually, we kind of see their fates play out, but at first, it was a little confusing because I feel like they weren't established fully...

YOUNG: Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Outside of just being within Fred Hampton's inner circle. Again, I agree with you. It was great to see these actors who we've seen in many other things have a chance to sort of inhabit this world that we don't often see played out in this way. So...

YOUNG: Exactly, yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah. J.C., what did you think?

HOWARD: So I feel like my perspective watching the movie right now, you know, after the demonstrations and heightened tensions of last summer and kind of in the wake of the insurrection at the Capitol last month, for me, there's just an added layer. Like, a lot of people compared the response of law enforcement to the Capitol mob to the response to Black Lives Matter protesters last summer. But now, having watched this movie, I can't help but compare the response of the FBI to, you know, QAnon believers who might push massive, dangerous conspiracy theories to their response to someone like Fred Hampton, who's saying, hey, capitalism is not working equally for all of us.

I mean, that's not to say that Fred Hampton, even as he's depicted in the film, is all sunshine and free breakfast. He says some things that are - I kind of think about, with the former president's second impeachment trial starting this week over the charge that he incited violence with his words, like watching Hampton, say, kill a pig, get a little satisfaction, kill more pigs, get more satisfaction - it just kind of rings differently. And it's complex and complicated.

So I think one of the things that the film gets really right, for instance, about the Black Panthers is this kind of internal struggle of - are we a militant force set on overthrowing the oppressor by force, or are we a conduit for a better social safety net? And I don't think you would get a straight answer from a lot of characters in the film. I think a lot of them would just say, yes, and - we are kind of both. So for me, depicting that natural dichotomy is not easy, and it would be easier to try to shy away from that, but I appreciate that the film didn't run from it. They kind of embraced it wholeheartedly.

HARRIS: You're right. There are a couple of scenes where the idea of death sort of looms large throughout the entire film.

HOWARD: Right.

HARRIS: And in the same way that MLK was expecting to die in perhaps...

HOWARD: Right.

HARRIS: ...Not the natural way, Fred Hampton also expresses these within the film.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: But then he also expresses, you know, concern that his words might have taken him too far in one scene.

HOWARD: Right.

HARRIS: So it's great to see that dichotomy.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: Thank you, J.C. Stephen, what about you?

THOMPSON: Yeah, I agree with a lot of what J.C. just said. I - you know, we've watched a lot of historical dramas over the course of the time that we've done this show, kind of every award season. And I thought this is one of the most effective historical dramas that I've seen in a while, in part because - as J.C. said - it has so many present-day reverberations. It still feels very relevant.

HOWARD: Yeah.

THOMPSON: And I think a big part of this movie's strength is in that performance by Daniel Kaluuya, who has the steeliest gaze in film.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Does so much incredibly effective work with his eyes and always has.

HOWARD: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: They speak volumes in every scene he's in. He just imbues every scene with so much charisma and force, and yet there's nuance to that portrayal.

HOWARD: Right.

THOMPSON: I think that the farther this movie gets removed from that performance by Kaluuya, I think some of the edges fray a little bit. I think the LaKeith Stanfield performance is a really good performance, but I think that movie doesn't quite know what to make of Bill O'Neal - you know, understandably so. I think Bill O'Neal was a very opaque character. But I found myself kind of constantly wanting to, like, research - OK, what's the deal with this guy? I didn't quite get a feel for it. And then once you move out another layer from that, you start to get into the kind of more traditional historical drama - pancake makeup on Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover.

HARRIS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Any time Martin Sheen was on screen as J. Edgar Hoover, I just rolled my eyes because I could completely forget I was watching Daniel Kaluuya, (laughter) even though...

HOWARD: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...You can spot Daniel Kaluuya's eyes from the sun.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I got completely lost in that performance. But I could never get lost watching Martin Sheen in pancake makeup as J. Edgar Hoover. And so I felt like the closer this movie stayed to its core subject matter, the more gripping I found it. And in general, it totally worked for me.

HARRIS: Yeah. I also really thought it was very well done on almost all fronts. And as a on-the-record hater of biopics...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...I appreciate that this really focused on the last year, year and a half to two years of Fred Hampton's life. And as Ronald was saying, we get bits and pieces of where he came from, but it's all kind of weaved in a very natural way. Now, where I fell short on this was the sort of framing of the FBI in some ways because I do feel as though they were made out to be the uber villain. And they should be, but I think it went too far into signposting territory. There are several moments where Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover is saying things that J. Edgar Hoover probably said but I think maybe didn't need to be said quite in this way.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: I think the translation from real life to drama - and perhaps it's just because I also just recently watched the really great MLK FBI documentary that really lays down and unpacks the way in which they targeted MLK. And to me, that did a better job and a more effective job of getting across all of the really, really intricate ways in which the FBI targeted him. And here it's kind of funneled into just, like, OK, J. Edgar Hoover and then Roy Mitchell, and they're sort of the two sort of stand-ins for the FBI. And I don't know. I think that perhaps some viewers may benefit from that, people who may not be as up on what happened to the Black Panther movement.

At the same time, for me as a viewer who understands and knows all the really insidious ways in which they did this, it felt a little bit much. But I also think that those parts - I could deal with that when we're talking about someone like Daniel Kaluuya and the way in which this movie really does a good job, I think, of laying out what the Black Panthers were trying to do. I think that can't be overstated because it's still - very much people think of them in the same way as they think about the Black Lives Matter movement, as super militant.

And we see, you know, Fred Hampton trying to create these alliances with not just other Black groups that have their own interests but also white groups who, like - he goes to one meeting where there is a mostly poor, white group of people. There's a giant Confederate flag in the background. But he's trying to build what he called a rainbow coalition. So I think it was really well done. And I mentioned the Chicago drawl. It is so great. And I want us to listen to just one moment. This is a scene where Fred Hampton is teaching other Black Panther members about the way in which the party wants to pursue politics and activism.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) How would you define politics? By the winners?

ALGEE SMITH: (As Jake Winters) You know, elections.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) Elections can be part of politics, certainly. But we in the party ascribe to Chairman Mao's definition of politics. He said war is politics with bloodshed, and politics is war without bloodshed. Say it with me, y'all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) War is politics with bloodshed. Politics is war without bloodshed.

HARRIS: In that clip, you also hear Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer and Algee Smith as Jake Winters. And yeah, I just love the way in which it really breaks down their ideology, and it demystifies all of that. And again, Daniel Kaluuya's accent is just - he's a master of these things. I've known so many Black men from Chicago who talk like that.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: It's just, like, spot on. So I really, really loved it.

YOUNG: I think this movie could easily be looked at as a triumph for Daniel Kaluuya's performance. But I really do appreciate what you said about the FBI because one of the biggest issues I had with this movie was that the first hour, I felt like, was very efficient storytelling - very, very good throughout the end. It's very tight. Then there's a big set piece where the cops do something against the Black Panthers. I don't want to spoil, but you can probably Google it. But after that, the movie slows down, and you're 100% right about the FBI skewing in to this, like, super villain territory, where it's almost mustache twirly (ph) the way they're talking to each other about what's going to happen with these Black folks if we don't stop the Black Panthers. And those particular moments with the FBI felt like there wasn't enough nuance to what the FBI was doing. It felt like the agenda was just going to be they were racist and evil - the end - as opposed to any other nuance that could have been provided them to make them more three-dimensional.

THOMPSON: Yeah. There's a very, ladies and gentlemen, to evil...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...To a lot of the way those FBI scenes play out, which - I understand they need to contextualize the point of view of everybody in the film. I did appreciate - one thing that I really loved about this film was the way that it wasn't just this larger life-and-death story. They wove in ideas about community organizing. They wove in ideas about sacrifice and parenthood and, like, when you are risking your life for a cause, how that can reverberate in your family. I really appreciated some of this movie's asides in that it wasn't all just, like, a great man movie. It's a movement movie. And it really - like, I think the Dominique Fishback performance is really key here. And I thought she brought so much more to it than you often see in movies like this.

HARRIS: Of the girlfriend of the great man.

THOMPSON: Yes, yeah, yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah, completely agree.

JC HOWARD, BYLINE: Yeah. Dominique Fishback's performance as Deborah Johnson is - I think it's particularly noteworthy. There's the one scene where Fred is giving the I am a revolutionary speech that's previewed in the trailer. It's everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) ...A revolutionary.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) ...A revolutionary.

HOWARD: And in that scene, Fishback has these stolen moments and literally silent tears that really helped to drive home how high the stakes are for her. And I think that it's really important to think about - she is one person who's arguably most affected by the events of the film, other than the people who are referred to in the title. To echo what Ron has said, as well, I would like to have seen more of some of the side characters, including her. I really appreciated the fact that they centered the climax of the movie on her experience not only visually, but from what - I've done a little bit of research outside of this. And my understanding is what goes down in the film is almost a shot-for-shot retelling of the real Deborah Johnson's firsthand account. So it would have been really nice to see more of that and more of her. But for what we got, her performance was absolutely compelling.

HARRIS: I completely agree. And one last thing I will note is that I think it's definitely worth checking out William O'Neill's interview that is weaved in both with LaKeith Stanfield playing him, but also at the very end of the film, we see an actual clip of the real-life William O'Neal in the documentary "Eyes On The Prize," Part 2.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: And LaKeith Stanfield has talked about trying to interpret that character. And when you watch that clip, William O'Neal is probably around his late 30s, right before he reportedly died by suicide in 1990 at the age of 40. He doesn't really seem like he's that remorseful about it. But LaKeith has said he kind of interpreted him as him being in denial, and LaKeith wanted to sort of portray him as a more conflicted character. And I do think it kind of comes across in that way of the William O'Neal character in the movie feeling conflicted at times. But, Stephen, I can also understand the sense that we still don't necessarily understand - beyond, like, the obvious, like, criminal aspects of it and not wanting to get charges - like, why he would continue to do these things.

HOWARD: Yeah.

YOUNG: But I will say, when it gets to the end and it does the normal biopic-y (ph) things of showing the real characters and adding the words, for me, that was probably one of the most effective uses of that trope I've seen in any biopic because when William O'Neal sits down and starts talking and you're looking at his face, I'm like, man, you - like, you did this and...

HOWARD: You're the guy. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah.

YOUNG: Yes, yes. And you can see it in his face.

THOMPSON: I feel like that trope exists entirely to say, like, look how good our actors are.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: Yes.

HARRIS: It totally does. It totally does.

YOUNG: He looks just like LaKeith.

HOWARD: He's wearing the same suit.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Well, tell us what you think about "Judas And The Black Messiah." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @pchh. And when we come back, it'll be time to talk about what's making us happy this week. So come right back.

Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what's making us happy. Ronald, let's start with you. What is making you happy this week?

YOUNG: OK, so I want to point everyone's attention to a comic book that I recently read called "Night," and it's from a very small fledgling organization called Anywhere But Here Komics, spelled with a K. And it tells the story of a new African American superhero set in the civil rights-era South - probably pre-civil rights-era South. His superpower is that he receives strength from folks who have been lynched in the South. He receives strength and uses that to exact vengeance upon people who do the lynching and the terrorizing in the South.

It's an extremely violent comic book, so let me just start there. It's definitely not for everyone. I wouldn't say it's exactly making me happy, but it gave me joy in the same vein of watching "Lovecraft Country," watching "Get Out" or "Us," watching these new definitions and takes on racism and struggle for Black folks in the United States and the new retellings of those stories. So again, that's called "Night." You can go to nightrises.com to read the first issue. It's digital, so have at it.

HARRIS: That sounds great. Thank you so much, Ronald. J.C., what is making you happy this week?

HOWARD: So what's making me happy this week is actually something from all the way last year in 2020, and that's the Obama interview by Desus & Mero. Desus & Mero, of course, have a show on Showtime. They have this kind of irreverent style that they're known for. And when they sit down with Obama, I think it's so funny. The roles almost reverse. They're sitting down with the former president who's coming to promote a book, and so it feels like at first, Desus & Mero kind of let their guard down. They're sitting down with a statesman. And Obama is just in rare form. He's fully code-switched from the Obama that we usually hear. And he's joking. He's relaxed. The swagger of Obama, the - like, that notable swagger is turned up to 11. And they're talking about everything from Obama's kind of sports career to Putin to the scandalous tan suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DESUS AND MERO")

BARACK OBAMA: You know, the big scandal for me was the time I wore a tan suit, which I thought was pretty sharp.

DESUS NICE: It was a sharp suit.

THE KID MERO: I - listen, I...

OBAMA: I had worn it to church just, like, that spring. And, you know...

THE KID MERO: Listen - the only thing I said was, like, this is a dope suit. Like, he looks like he's the illest, you know, RE/MAX realty salesman in Carbondale, Mich., right now.

OBAMA: (Laughter).

HOWARD: Kind of no matter what your politics is, it's interesting to see Obama in such a different light than we normally see him. And at the very least, it's a lot of just really funny moments with the former president.

HARRIS: Well, thank you. Again, that's Desus & Mero's interview with Obama. I'm always a fan of chill Obama. I think that's my favorite Obama.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: Yeah. Chill Obama's great.

HARRIS: (Laughter) Thank you, J.C. Stephen, how about you?

THOMPSON: Well, I'm long on the record as a big "Survivor" nerd. I have watched really an alarming amount of "Survivor" in my life. Well, we are now entering the second season without "Survivor." Because of COVID-19, they haven't been able to shoot the show.

And I've dipped into a surprisingly wonderful little series that Entertainment Weekly has been doing. They've got a journalist there named Dalton Ross who has basically, like - he's interviewed every "Survivor" contestant. They have a pretty amazing amount of content about the show. And they've been doing this series called "Survivor" Quarantine Questionnaire, and it's just basically email interviews with former "Survivor" players, including many who are not ludicrously overexposed. It's not just, like, all your, like, headliner "Survivor" people. It'll be like, this person was on "Survivor: China" for nine days and got voted off. And I would have to Google them to, like, remember their face.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: But there are these really interesting windows into the humanity of these people. And, like, when you watch reality television, you really are, of course, getting a very edited, kind of storyboarded look at somebody's life. And I just found, like, spending about an hour just digging through these old interviews, it became a really useful empathy exercise when it would be, like, somebody who I, like, invested a fair bit of energy in not liking and then to spend time with them 10 or 15 years later and see good in them - I don't know, man. It has been a perfect kind of COVID-19 activity to get way too deep into a subject I've already been way too deep into...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...And find some sort of feeling of personal growth in it. But here we are. So that's "Survivor" Quarantine Questionnaire on Entertainment Weekly.

HARRIS: Aww. I'm so glad that's making you happy, especially in a drought...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Yes.

HARRIS: ...Of "Survivor." So last week, The New York Times did an episode from their New York Times Present docuseries called "Framing Britney Spears." And this episode follows Britney Spears and how she sort of lost control of her career and her life. She's been under conservatorship for the last 11, 12 years. And it follows the Free Britney campaign, which has been sort of a social movement among her biggest fans to help Britney regain control of her career. And this documentary made a lot of waves on social media over the weekend, especially as it pertains to the way in which the media treated Britney, as well as a lot of anger at Justin Timberlake, who she dated in the early aughts.

But that's not what's making me happy because it's super depressing. What's making me happy is that it actually led me to go back and watch some of the "Making The Video" episodes starring Britney Spears.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: This was from a period of her - peak Britney. It was when she was creating videos for everything from "Oops!... I Did It Again" to "Lucky" to "(You Drive Me) Crazy," which is one of the ones that I personally love and remember. I was, you know, prime Britney Spears fan age when she was at her peak, around 12 - 11, 12. And going back and rewatching it, it is just so clear, A, how much happier she was, B, how much control she had - because throughout the episode, it focuses mostly on her, Nigel Dick who was the director and who collaborated with her several - on several videos, and also Darrin Henson, also known for "Darrin's Dance Grooves," which was (laughter) him breaking down all of the choreography he did for, you know, Britney Spears, NSYNC - all of that.

And to see them all talk about how Britney has all these ideas and being, you know, in control of what she wanted to do and coming up with the costumes and the theme for the videos, it's just such a joy to watch it. And I miss "Making The Video." A lot of them are on YouTube. They're very short episodes. I think it comes out to, like, maybe 15, 20 minutes total. And so seeing Britney in her joy, doing what she loved before things went way down south, is what's making me happy this week. And I hope that she finds peace soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: And that's what's making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, exclusives and a newsletter, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And that brings us to the end of our show. You can find us all on Twitter. You can find me at @craftingmystyle. Follow Stephen at @idislikestephen. Follow Ronald at @ohitsbigron and J.C. at @thejchoward. You can follow editor Jessica Reedy at @jessica_reedy and producer Candice Lim at @thecandicelim. And you can follow producer Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif - that's K-A-T-Z-I-F. And Mike's band Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now.

Thank you to you all for being here.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

YOUNG: Thank you.

HOWARD: Thank you.

HARRIS: And thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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