Friday, April 23, 2021

Up the Rebels! -- Fred Hampton, Abbie Hoffman, and the Oscar Powers-That-Be

 I watched Judas and the Black Messiah on a day fraught with longterm implications: a Minneapolis jury had just convicted ex-police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. Given that the number of unarmed African-Americans killed by cops in the name of law and order continues to rise, I could certainly understand the stone-cold cold fury with which the film’s Fred Hampton, chairman of the Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party, spoke out against white authority figures of all stripes. By the same token, when Hampton’s character (as played by Daniel Kaluuya) announced his determination to overthrow the U.S. government, all I could think of was the January 6 assault on our Capitol by a very different set of dissidents with a very different agenda. How times have (and have not) changed!

 Although the true-life incidents that make up Judas and the Black Messiah take place in 1968, the story seems more than timely today. Sure, J. Edgar Hoover (played, ironically enough, by classic good-hearted liberal Martin Sheen) no longer heads the FBI, and Hoover’s deeply entrenched racism is perhaps no longer official policy. But current events have shown there’s no shortage of bias against Black and brown communities, and I’m grateful to this film for its perspective on a key slice of American history. I’m also grateful for two razor-sharp performances, both of them nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, much to the annoyance of critics who wonder why neither portrayal was judged to be a leading role. As Fred Hampton, Kaluuya (best known in this country for Get Out) crackles with charisma, alternating between eloquent anger and the tender regard he shows for his woman and his unborn child. The real Hampton was only 21 when he died, and it’s a shame we’ll never know how he might have evolved.

 The film’s second nominated Best Supporting Actor, the “Judas” of its title, is Lakeith Stanfield, playing Bill O’Neal, the crafty Chicago car thief “persuaded” by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panthers. Stanfield, coming off a long string of credits in major films (Uncut Gems, Knives Out) has perhaps the bigger acting challenge. His character is that of a man who keeps his feelings close to the vest, one whose ultimate fate – as spelled out in the film’s final moments – can in fact be read several ways. Stanfield plays the enigma forcefully, allowing viewers to make up their own minds.

 Despite these golden performances, and some brilliant crowd moments, Judas and the Black Messiah can be baffling at times. But it makes a fascinating comparison to another big Oscar nominee, set in the same era and the same locale. The Trial of the Chicago 7, which zeroes in on a motley group of young activists arrested following the 1968 Democratic presidential convention, has been justly honored as a terrific ensemble piece, with such fine actors as Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, John Carroll Lynch, and Eddie Redmayne all doing their part. But the one actor from the film singled out for an Oscar is the ubiquitous Sacha Baron Cohen, who for years had coveted the role of activist clown-prince Abbie Hoffman. Though I once thought of Baron Cohen as a goofball, I’m now convinced he’s a highly serious and morally indignant man, a perfect choice for the kidding-on-the-square role of the Yippie leader. He’s also having a banner year, with his Borat sequel far more politically pointed than its predecessor. Can he wrest the Oscar from Kaluuya and Stanfield? We’ll soon find out. 


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