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How Genre Influences ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
by Julian Hart

With the recent assortment of American biopics, one should be surprised by the unconventionality of Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. Just within the last year, released biopics include (but are far from limited to) Mank (the portrait of several lonesome episodes in the life of a famed screenwriter), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (the dramatization of a famed American trial proceeding), and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (the musical depiction of a legendary jazz singer). It would be fair to assume that Judas would investigate another well-known, politically relevant character in American history; it does, to an extent: the film is centered around the rise and fall of Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois Black Panther chapter. 

Hampton would become larger than life, embodying the civil rights and self-determination of African Americans following the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Coined as “The Black Messiah” in the film’s clandestine FBI operation against the Black Panther Party, Hampton becomes a beacon of hope and a target for the inhabitants of late-sixties and early-seventies Chicago. Surprisingly, though, King’s film doesn’t follow Hampton, save for occasional glimpses of his romantic relationship with fellow Black Panther member Deborah Johnson. The subject of the film is William “Bill” O’Neal, an FBI informer who infiltrated the Black Panther Party and participated in the assassination of Hampton. At first glance, it may seem perplexing why a comparatively unknown and unsympathetic character, disdained to the extent of being the titular “Judas” to Hampton’s “Black Messiah”, would be the central character of Shaka King’s film.

Judas was initially conceived from two different projects: a pitch created by the comedy duo of Kenny and Keith Lucas (professionally known as The Lucas Brothers), described as The Conformist meets The Departed; and a feature-length script written by television comedy screenwriter Will Berson, shopped as an unconventional and expansive look in the life of Fred Hampton. Following a meeting with the Lucas Bros., King was joined by Berson as co-screenwriter. The final film, described by King as “‘The Departed’ set in the world of Cointelpro”, began to form. King’s film would follow William O’Neal; a framing device to examine the conflict between the Black Panther Party and government forces and working tangentially to the Hampton-focused moments.

What does this extensive production history indicate? While Judas works within the confines of a conventional biopic, it is bolstered by a clever mix of genre traditions. The film itself can be seen as a combination of genres: the political-thriller through the nerve-wracking angst of O’Neal’s Black Panther party infiltration; the layered period piece tale of Fred Hampton’s life as an activist; the romantic-drama encapsulated by the relationship between Hampton and Johnson. While genre interplay is far from new to biopics, Judas wields the different conventions like few others, resulting in a pointedly amorphous film. A typical, traditional biopic would focus solely on the life and death of Fred Hampton, displaying the adversity and hardships he faced while becoming a champion for civil rights. He may, as a studio executive pressed in one of the film’s early pitch meetings, become “nervous and stutter [through] his first [public speech.]” King’s film is not traditional, at least from a narrative perspective. Normally, a genre biopic would interweave conventions and tones to create a more accessible and identifiable film. An example would be The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is both a biopic and a courtroom trial film and strives to connect the two genre identities.

In Judas, genre interplay operates in isolation to specific characters and interactions. The political-thriller aspects of the film are tied to Bill O’Neal’s story and stem from his progression and choices. Information is restricted from other Black Panther members, giving O’Neal a different perspective on the film’s events than, for example, Fred Hampton. O’Neal is the only lead character who knows of his infiltration and is the source of paranoia throughout the film, such as when George Sams, a Black Panther security captain, tells O’Neal that he killed a possible mole in the party. The potential mole thread is attributed to O’Neal, as he tries to arouse suspicion within the party and incriminate the party’s leaders. These gripping scenes thrive on intelligent narrative work, but are undeniably elevated — when juxtaposed with other films that dabble (or center) in the genre — by the externalized interiority of a character. In the aforementioned scene, once O’Neal is informed of Sams killing a mole, he is isolated in an over-the-shoulder shot throughout the rest of the conversation, heightening his sense of vulnerability and dread. When Sams is in the frame, the camera is slowly pushing forward, as if O’Neal is completely captured by how the mole was discovered. The final sentence of the story (that Sams killed the mole) is accompanied by the ominous sound of wind and Sams’s laughter, suggesting O’Neal’s fear of being caught.

A deliriously paranoid scene like this differs, stylistically, from a romantic scene (such as when Hampton and Johnson flirt in Hampton’s apartment) in which intimacy is prioritized over dread. A deliriously paranoid scene like this differs, stylistically, from one in which an air of romance permeates each frame; in which intimacy is prioritized over dread. As Hampton and Johnson mingle in his apartment, King adjusts his sights, becoming dedicated to character interactions and understanding what Hampton and Johnson want from each other )and themselves). The characters aren’t concerned with the progress of the Black Panthers or a possible mole infiltration, rather chiefly concerned with their personal lives, and the filmmaking reflects that through handsome amounts of intimate dialogue (bordered by boundless silence) and relatively less-stylized camera & editing techniques. That’s not to say that the romantic aspects of the film are not as intricate or advanced as the period or thriller threads. King opts to focus more on character behaviors and less on stylized devices. Visual stillness, a subordinate camera, and the interactions between Hampton and Johnson (in two excellent performances by Daniel Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback, respectively) work together to create a portrait of a burgeoning romance. Within the purview of the rest of the film, King emphasizes an emotional vulnerability rather than a physical or psychological vulnerability. The scene, and the romance thread as a whole, are about what Hampton and Johnson mean to each other, as opposed to what external pressures mean to O’Neal in the thriller thread and what Hampton means to others in the period piece thread.

The success of genre interplay in Judas is predicated on similar processes found in accomplishments of other films and filmmakers that rely on appropriating and subverting conventions. Genre interplay, when utilized as a tool for unconventional narrative filmmaking, is reliant on the growth of both film and respective film genres. Classical filmmakers used genre interplay as a method to experiment with narrative structures and reflect social and political issues, as demonstrated in the films of Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock; each known, for varying, individual reasons, as masters of the craft. The tradition of genre interplay both has become omnipresent to auteur filmmaking, resulting in daring experiments from some of film history’s greatest directors. Robert Altman uses the tenets of classic crime films to satirize contemporary film culture and the Hollywood industry in The Player; Martin Scorsese combines noir, sports drama, and biopic conventions in Raging Bull to comment on the experiences of the film’s subject; Bong Joon-Ho adopts and subverts the hallmarks of the police procedural and whodunit genres in Memories of Murder to criticize globalization and the incursion of western culture into South Korea. In this medium, genre interplay has become synonymous with experimentation in multiple aspects of narrative storytelling.

Genre works similarly in Judas, aiming not only to experiment with narrative flow but to stress the racial issues faced around Hampton’s assassination and are still present today. O’Neal’s arc is constructed around his betrayal of the Black Panther Party and his allegiance to his white FBI handler. His storyline can be viewed as evidence of co-opting African Americans by a dominant, racist culture into halting the progression of equity among races, through betraying and rejecting their race with hopes of better monetary and social standing. Hampton and Johnson’s relationship is representative of the pressures and limitations put on black romantic partners. They are endangered by both racial and gender stereotypes. Hampton is viewed as a threat by the white establishment and is put in jail on a false larceny charge. Johnson spends most of her pregnancy without Hampton, the pressures of which are evidenced by the reveal of her poem “Are You a Bad Motherfucker Or a Bad Mother?” Hampton’s rise and fall depict the rejection of African American leaders in a dominantly white society, resulting from a sense of encroachment on white prominence and power. Before Hampton’s goal of creating the Rainbow Coalition movement is introduced, he is decided to be a threat by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and is targeted for a COINELPRO operation.
One of the more indelible scenes of the film occurs when Hampton gives his first speech after being released from jail. All of the main interactions are represented. Fred Hampton’s ability to unite and inspire is captured through a low-angled camera that lags behind his energetic and grandiose movements. Deborah Johnson, in the audience, tears up as she is reunited with the principled and caring man she fell in love with. Bill O’Neal looks into the crowd as he chants along with the room, petrified to see his FBI handler spying on him from the audience. This scene is the product of daring experimentation that is rarely seen in today’s films and faces insurmountable odds in coming to the screen. It is already difficult to create a studio film centered around the marginalization of a minority group and is increasingly more difficult when the filmmakers are actively trying to subvert audience expectations. Judas and the Black Messiah is a triumph of combining genre filmmaking, African American cinema, and experimentation within the studio system to create a memorable illustration of one of America’s most notable civil rights activists.