Freedom and the Double Minded Man
A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Officers attached to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, murdered Fred Hampton in his sleep.
In a lesser film knowledge of this bit of the historical record would constitute an unforgivable spoiler. In Shaka King’s captivating new crime thriller Judas and the Black Messiah, however, it actually increases rather than diminishes the viewing experience. For while much of the conversation surrounding the film is likely to revolve around its treatment of such contemporary issues as white resentment and state-sponsored violence against blacks, its true excellence is anchored in its tragic and fatalistic vision of our frail humanity.
These themes are put into play immediately. Indeed, the opening shot of the film is of a documentary production assistant’s back. It fills nearly the entire frame. That the initial image of the movie is obscuring rather than revealing is relevant because the thrust of Judas and the Black Messiah’s narrative drama is located as much in its character’s bad faith inauthenticity and self-deception as it is in its driving, genre-satisfying plot development.
When the production assistant moves off camera the subject of the film is revealed: William O’Neal, the titular Judas of the story and a 1960s and 70s member of the Black Panther Party. O’Neal is sitting for a PBS interview about his activities with the Panthers during that time period. He looks awful, sweat blooming in damp nervousness from his brow and an agitated twitch emanating from deep within his tormented soul. He’s so bad, in fact, that the director demands someone clean him up before proceeding with the interview.
When O’Neal is finally made fit for filming, the interviewer asks him what he would like tell his son about his time with the Panthers. He struggles to find an answer. The rest of the film does that for him, showcasing in artful consideration the freedom disowning ravages a psychology endures when compelled to assume false values under the presumably unbearable pressure of external social forces. The pitiful product of these forces are portrayed skillfully by LaKieth Stanfield’s William O’Neal and Jesse Plemmons’s Roy Mitchell. Each performance teems with the tragic frustrations of weak individuals unable to live authentically when confronted with the demands of their respective social milieus.
Shortly after an opening credit sequence against the backdrop of Black Panther found footage, we meet Jesse Plemmons’s Roy Mitchell. Roy Mitchell is a young Hoover-era FBI agent. We’re introduced to him during one of Hoover’s speeches about the nascent black liberation movement. This crusade for liberty and justice for all, Hoover argues, is, improbably, more threatening to the United States of America than is international communism. It must, therefore, be stopped before it produces a “Black Messiah.” Our first shot of Mitchell shows his unease at this sentiment: he squirms in his chair in obvious objection to Hoover’s thesis. Yet Mitchell, as we’ll see, is pressured by the constraints of his career and compelled to execute his master’s wishes.
Luckily for Mitchell he discovers a conduit through which he can achieve this foul ambition in the person of William O’Neal, a small-time thief operating under an identical deficit of character requisite to act with freedom and live with conscience.
When we meet up with O’Neal again it’s the late 1960s and his face is still obscured — a theme is emerging — this time by a wide, low-brimmed fedora meant to shield his countenance from the people he’s about to rob. His target is a group of black Chicagoans at a pool hall. O’Neal wants one of their cars so, foreshadowingly, he disguises himself as an FBI agent and storms the place, demanding everyone put their hands on the billiards table and empty their pockets so he can grab the keys to the car he wants to steal.
This scene is a striking showcase of Shaka King’s deft direction. We follow O’Neal’s assault on the pool hall as an abrasive horn arrangement chokes the soundtrack and a dextrous, roving steadicam shot full of nervous energy tracks his every move. Though he escapes this daring heist with his life, O’Neal is pulled over the by police shortly thereafter and delivered into the hands of FBI agent Roy Mitchell.
What follows is standard crime-thriller fare. Mitchell offers O’Neal a deal: either O’Neal does a five year bid for car theft and impersonating a federal officer or he turns rat on the Chicago chapter of the Blank Panthers. Mitchell’s offer and O’Neal’s acceptance of this deal sets in motion not only the driving plot but, more importantly, a deep character study of self-enslavement on the one hand and true human freedom on the other. O’Neal and Mitchell are now locked into a shared conflict that arises from the same issue: the rejection rather than embrace of human suffering.
“If there is a meaning in life at all,” writes Viktor Frankl, reflecting on his imprisonment in German concentration camps during World War II, “then there must be a meaning in suffering.” For Frankl suffering is an immutable component of human existence without which life itself is incomplete. In a particularly à propos passage from his great work Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl writes:
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.
Throughout Judas and the Black Messiah William O’Neal and Roy Mitchell prove themselves utterly unworthy of their sufferings.
Let’s start with O’Neal. His primary motivation in the film is to avoid the perceived suffering he’d endure in jail. Yet, in order to avoid this suffering O’Neal unwittingly entraps himself in a duplicitous life of self-torment and crippling frustration as he informs on Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, a man and an organization O’Neal clearly admires and supports.
It’s a painful process to witness. We see this struggle in O’Neal as each step he takes towards Fred Hampton chips further away at his soul. He sees the good work Hampton and his fellow Panthers do in the community. In fact, he himself partakes in these good works. He helps with the free breakfasts, the free clinics, the legal aid organizations. He even rises to a position of authority and respect within the organization as head of security. Yet at every moment, the conflict boiling just under his skin, O’Neal knows that he’s actually working to destroy this movement rather than lift it up.
LaKeith Stanfield’s performance drips with the agony of this knowledge, evoking both the dreadful ferocity and the beastly confusion of a caged animal. This great personal torment — musical themes play an important role in the film — is highlighted by a leitmotif of harshly percussive piano, agitated drums and feverish horns.
O’Neal’s confusion and frustration culminates late in the film when he shows up with a trunkful of C4 and suggests that Hampton use it in their war on the cops. Hampton is mystified why O’Neal would even suggest such a thing and declines the offer. O’Neal lashes out, accusing Hampton of failing the cause of the revolution. The irony is not lost on the viewer. It’s O’Neal, after all, who is betraying the cause. And, yet, here he is ready to murder those he’s working with. Whose side is he truly on? This confusion finds its analog in the various contradictory Gospel interpretations of the Judas story: did Judas steal the money from the apostle’s coffer like in the Gospel according to John? Does guilt drive him to return the money after his betrayal as we read in Matthew? Or maybe Judas agrees to betray Jesus Christ because, as Luke tells it, he was possessed by the devil?
O’Neal’s bedeviled mauvaise foie is echoed in the character of Roy Mitchell. Mitchell’s introductory scene, recall, shows his unease with Hoover’s Black Messiah theory. Nevertheless, something drives him to support it. One potential explanation for this support emerges when Mitchell invites O’Neal into his home later in the film. O’Neal is impressed. The Mitchell house is a relatively large home, populated with comfortable and fashionable furniture, bookcases, a bar, and, of course, a nice mid-century American nuclear family. When O’Neal asks Mitchell how much he makes to support all this Mitchell responds that he “makes a living.”
And what does making this living cost Mitchell? Much like his counterpart, O’Neal, it costs him everything. Throughout the film Mitchell is confronted with the evils of his work and the self-damage it inflicts upon his psyche. At no no point, however, does he ever confront these evils. He accepts, for instance, the Bureau’s clear violations of the criminal law, despite, presumably, having taken an oath to uphold and enforce that law. He also accepts work against the civil rights movement he claims to support. In one particularly grueling scene Mitchell even accepts Hoover’s insulting and racist miscegenation fantasy about his, Mitchell’s, baby daughter. Seeking to avoid the suffering of career uncertainty, he accepts rather than rejects these awful things and suffers the consequences accordingly.
So, with O’Neal and Mitchell, Shaka Khan presents a vivid illustration of the individual destruction wrought by a refusal to find meaning in suffering. Theirs is a ferine existence wherein each undignified lunge for self-preservation and suffering avoidance further entangles their souls until all that remains of the human is mere wooden marionette hanging aimlessly, pulled along by the skittish strings of fate.
Judas and the Black Messiah is, however, an American story so there must be some hope and optimism within its otherwise tragic narrative. That hope and optimism is found in the Fred Hampton character played by Daniel Kaluuya.
With Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton we have none of the ressentiment nor any of the bad faith living found in O’Neal and Mitchell. Neither have we the jarring musical soundtrack associated with those characters. Most of Hampton’s moments, instead, feature a gentle and harmonic jazz piano, the perfect musical complement to Frankl’s man of meaning.
To better grasp the import of the choices Hampton makes in the film it helps to understand his personal background. Hampton was born black in Jim Crow America. As if that wasn’t enough of a struggle, he also grew up as an activist at a time when law enforcement’s war on activism, particularly black activism, was at its height. Despite these challenges Hampton persevered in pursuit of his purpose in life.
As Victor Frankl counsels, Kaluuya’s Hampton accepts his fate and the suffering it entails, finding transcendent meaning therein. In the film’s climatic scene, for instance, on the very eve of his execution, Hampton gathers with his fellow Panthers, the Judas O’Neal among them, to discuss his future. It doesn’t look good for him. He’s heading back to jail, having just lost his appeal, for a five year sentence. This, recall, is the exact length of sentence that ensnared O’Neal earlier in the film. Hampton’s options now, should he seek to avoid his fate and attempt to flee rather than embrace his suffering, are either to get down to Cuba or over to Algeria. They have great doctors in Cuba. They have beach bungalows in Algeria. And he’s been given a wad of cash to help him get there.
But Hampton rises to the occasion. “Is the party about me or about the people?” he asks. “It’s a five year bid. You know how many people we could save in five years with a medical clinic? On the west side? As far as I’m concerned that’s an easy decision.”
With that he hands over the cash for his escape and takes control of his life. He does not allow external forces to dictate the direction of his existence. Instead, in contrast to O’Neal and Mitchell, Hampton purposefully directs his life, attaining moral values amid the difficult positions afforded him.
The best films, the best stories, are those that at once entertain and enrich. With Shaka Khan’s Judas and the Black Messiah we have both: an engrossing crime thriller and, perhaps more importantly, a contemporary meditation on a practical piece of ancient wisdom:
Winter brings on cold weather; and we must shiver. Summer returns, with its heat; and we must sweat. Unseasonable weather upsets the health; and we must fall ill. In certain places we may meet with wild beasts, or with men who are more destructive than any beasts. Floods, or fires, will cause us loss. And we cannot change this order of things; but what we can do is to acquire stout hearts, worthy of good men, thereby courageously enduring chance and placing ourselves in harmony with Nature. And Nature moderates this world-kingdom which you see, by her changing seasons: clear weather follows cloudy; after a calm, comes the storm; the winds blow by turns; day succeeds night; some of the heavenly bodies rise, and some set. Eternity consists of opposites.
It is to this law that our souls must adjust themselves, this they should follow, this they should obey. Whatever happens, assume that it was bound to happen, and do not be willing to rail at Nature. That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure, and to attend uncomplainingly upon the God under whose guidance everything progresses; for it is a bad soldier who grumbles when following his commander. For this reason we should welcome our orders with energy and vigour, nor should we cease to follow the natural course of this most beautiful universe, into which all our future sufferings are woven.
Let us address Jupiter, the pilot of this world-mass, as did our great Cleanthes in those most eloquent lines — lines which I shall allow myself to render in Latin, after the example of the eloquent Cicero. If you like them, make the most of them; if they displease you, you will understand that I have simply been following the practice of Cicero:
Lead me, O Master of the lofty heavens,
My Father, whithersoever thou shalt wish.
I shall not falter, but obey with speed.
And though I would not, I shall go, and suffer,
In sin and sorrow what I might have done
In noble virtue. Aye, the willing soul
Fate leads, but the unwilling drags along.
Let us live thus, and speak thus; let Fate find us ready and alert. Here is your great soul — the man who has given himself over to Fate; on the other hand, that man is a weakling and a degenerate who struggles and maligns the order of the universe and would rather reform the gods than reform himself.
Let us live thus: with a Hamptonian purposeful acceptance of fate and dedication to righteous cause.