One of the film productions I’ve been following, the formerly titled Jesus Is My Homeboy, has finally reached its end, meaning we can finally see the results of years of work.
The film, now titled Judas and the Black Messiah, has released its first trailer and first look image. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther revolutionary Fred Hampton, who was assassinated by the government with help from informant William O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. Shaka King directs the film, produced by Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Creed) and MACRO’s Charles D. King. Below are the film’s full stats, synopsis, and trailer:
Chairman Fred Hampton was 21 years old when he was assassinated by the FBI, who coerced a petty criminal named William O’Neal to help them silence him and the Black Panther Party. But they could not kill Fred Hampton’s legacy and, 50 years later, his words still echo…louder than ever.
I am a revolutionary!
In 1968, a young, charismatic activist named Fred Hampton became Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who were fighting for freedom, the power to determine the destiny of the Black community, and an end to police brutality and the slaughter of Black people.
Chairman Fred was inspiring a generation to rise up and not back down to oppression, which put him directly in the line of fire of the government, the FBI and the Chicago Police. But to destroy the revolution, they had to do it from both the outside…and the inside. Facing prison, William O’Neal is offered a deal by the FBI: if he will infiltrate the Black Panthers and provide intel on Hampton, he will walk free. O’Neal takes the deal.
Now a comrade in arms in the Black Panther Party, O’Neal lives in fear that his treachery will be discovered even as he rises in the ranks. But as Hampton’s fiery message draws him in, O’Neal cannot escape the deadly trajectory of his ultimate betrayal.
Though his life was cut short, Fred Hampton’s impact has continued to reverberate. The government saw the Black Panthers as a militant threat to the status quo and sold that lie to a frightened public in a time of growing civil unrest. But the perception of the Panthers was not reality. In inner cities across America, they were providing free breakfasts for children, legal services, medical clinics and research into sickle cell anemia, and political education. And it was Chairman Fred in Chicago, who, recognizing the power of multicultural unity for a common cause, created the Rainbow Coalition—joining forces with other oppressed peoples in the city to fight for equality and political empowerment.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” stars Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out,” “Widows,” “Black Panther”) as Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield (“Atlanta,” “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”) as William O’Neal. The film also stars Jesse Plemons (“Vice,” “Game Night,” “The Post”), Dominique Fishback (“The Hate U Give,” “The Deuce”), Ashton Sanders (“The Equalizer 2,” “Moonlight”) and Martin Sheen (“The Departed,” TV’s “The West Wing,” TV’s “Grace & Frankie”).
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is directed by Shaka King, marking his studio feature film directorial debut. The project originated with King and his writing partner, Will Berson, who co-wrote the screenplay, story by Berson & King and Kenny Lucas & Keith Lucas. King, who has a long relationship with filmmaker Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther,” “Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”), pitched the film to Coogler and Charles D. King (“Just Mercy,” “Fences”), who are producing the film. The executive producers are Sev Ohanian, Zinzi Coogler, Kim Roth, Poppy Hanks, Ravi Mehta, Jeff Skoll, Anikah McLaren, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Ted Gidlow, and Niija Kuykendall.
The ensemble cast also includes Algee Smith (“The Hate U Give,” “Detroit”), Darrell Britt-Gibson (“Just Mercy,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Dominique Thorne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), Amari Cheatom (“Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” “Django Unchained”), Caleb Eberhardt (“The Post”), and Lil Rel Howery (“Get Out”).
The behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave,” “Widows”), production designer Sam Lisenco (“Shades of Blue”), editor Kristan Sprague (“Random Acts of Flyness”) and costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones (“Raising Dion”)
The film is a Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in association with MACRO Films, Participant and BRON Creative, and will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures.Warner Bros. Pictures
So now that we’ve seen the trailer let me provide my thoughts. I’ve watched this a few times, and I feel conflicted.
As I’ve gotten deeper into my pop culture career, I’ve become less enamored with tearing apart trailers, especially when they are made “for the culture,” as it were. This is despite the fact that I’ve written negative words about trailers before. I don’t want it to seem like I’m judging an entire film based on just a couple of snippets, but that is what a trailer wants us to do–it wants us to decide if we’re going to see that project based on a few clips.
So, based on what the clips show, I feel like this film looks and sounds uneven. This film is Stanfield’s, as I already feel more compelled by his character than Kaluuya. Stanfield is an empathetic actor and a man in tune with Black American liberation movements and Black thought. Also, between himself and Kaluuya, Stanfield is the only Black American in this duo. As a Black American myself, I feel like Stanfield’s type of tacit knowledge is something Kaluuya can’t replicate.
Keep in mind; I’m not saying Kaluuya can’t successfully portray a Black American leader. We’ve seen Black Brit after Black Brit depict historical Black figures, to varying degrees of success. We’ve seen it so much that the diasporic arguments that have spawned around Black British actors playing historical African-Americans grow more potent as the years go on.
The reverse is also true; African-Americans can play historical African British people, even though we’ve seen it happen less often, especially recently.
Kaluuya can also be interested in Hampton’s story since it is part of the broader African diasporic history. But, just by nature of having grown up in Britain, plus having a Ugandan background (his parents are British immigrants), Kaluuya doesn’t have a personal tie to the African-American culture and experience.
Perhaps there’s a level of stress Kaluuya might relate to as far as assimilation goes; maybe he’s had to battle between the Ugandan culture of his parents and the British culture of his environment. I’m sure he’s dealt with his share of racism, too. But is that stress at the same level as the average African-American person, who has to deal with assimilation struggles and other microaggressions along with life-altering issues like police brutality? Also, let’s not forget that African-Americans are still dealing with the lasting effects of slavery; a particular stressor Kaluuya will never have running in his DNA.
On the other hand, Stanfield has experience with the unique stressors African-Americans face, and that can inform his portrayal of O’Neal in a way that will make him stand out against Kaluuya. In my view, Stanfield’s performance makes it look like Kaluuya is putting on a Fred Hampton costume in contrast, an appropriation if you will. Meanwhile, Stanfield inhabits the body of a Black man who is cornered by white supremacy and tortured by his traitorous act.
However, with all of this said, it’s not as if Kaluuya hasn’t successfully portrayed a Black American man before. Even though I dislike Queen & Slim, Kaluuya was one of the best parts of the film. He kept an otherwise idealistic film grounded in realism. But, even though Slim’s traumas are unique to African-Americans, Kaluuya was able to find an in-road into the character because Slim is a character an actor can approach abstractly, with only a cursory knowledge of issues facing African-Americans. (Jodie Turner-Smith, also a British-born Black actor, faced a similar problem portraying a Black American woman’s plight in America. Her characterizations were less convincing, in my view, for a variety of reasons.)
To provide another example to illustrate my point better, Chadwick Boseman is a fantastic actor, and he made a celebrated T’Challa in Black Panther. But playing an imaginary African king of a made-up pan-African nation is something that doesn’t need tons of lived experience if we’re honest.
While I’m positive Boseman–immensely learned when it comes to Black ideologies–approached the character with precision and reverence, T’Challa is a Marvel character, not a leader specific to any African country or culture. That doesn’t take any importance away from what the role means to African-Americans. But it should be clear that Black Panther is told from the African-American viewpoint, and makes a clear African-American argument against native Africans denigrating African-Americans with the same stereotypes White Americans use to portray us as a lesser caste.
Creating the film’s look required mountains of research, which Coogler and set designer Hannah Bleachler took seriously. Their research even meant they’d spend a long time in Africa getting a feel for its history and rainbow of cultures. But research isn’t the same as lived experience, things South African actors John Kani and Connie Chiume could bring to the table. Kaluuya and other Black actors with traceable African heritage could also bring their experiences to the table. Their knowledge also made their portrayals have more lived-in authenticity than their African-American counterparts.
As I’ve followed Judas and the Black Messiah’s production, I’ve become acquainted with how much Kaluuya has studied for this role. I’m sure he wants to do well by Hampton. But I’m curious as to how well he’ll do. If we’re looking at the accent work alone, I’m concerned.
Hampton’s accent is a challenge for an actor–even though he was born in Chicago, he speaks with a thick, southern accent, and I’m assuming a precise Lousiana accent. I think this is because his parents were originally from Louisiana, having moved to Chicago during the “Great Migration” of Black Americans from the south to points northward. As you’ll hear in this video clip, Hampton’s “I am a revolutionary” speech showcases Hampton’s accent as it was in real life.
Meanwhile, in the Judas and the Black Messiah trailer, Kaluuya’s accent feels forced and unnatural. Whereas Hampton does pronounce the “r” in “revolutionary,” despite his “r” being soft in a southern tone, Kaluuya forgoes the “r” altogether, which makes his southern accent sound instantly fake. At least, that’s how my southern ears picked it up. Poorly-executed southern accents are a personal pet peeve of mine, so hearing Kaluuya struggle with this accent, sometimes making Hampton sound mush-mouthed in this trailer, is frustrating.
Overall, the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah shows me that the more compelling story here is Stanfield’s, not Kaluuya’s. Sure, the film is about how and why O’Neal sold out Hampton, so it’s expected that Stanfield’s O’Neal will be a large focus. But I expect for Kaluuya to be as commanding on-screen as Stanfield. Instead, I’m concerned that Kaluuya could hold the film back. Of course, we won’t know until the movie comes out in 2021. We’ll see what I think then.