Notes on Judas and the Black Messiah
Aug 2021

Finally watched it. Chest heavy with anger, desperation and sometimes, with pride. Witnessed solidarity, union, friendship. Smiles rippled from: tenderness of young love, expecting motherhood in tumultuous times, poetry. Smiles ripped by: betrayal, murder, injustice, the inevitabilities of such.

The film starts with a re-enactment of a TV interview with the protagonist, William O’Neal, then cuts to various historical footage of the Black civil uprisings in the late 60’s. These grainy scenes with wide black edges on both sides are associated with analog film which, in broadcast, is a thing of the past. The next shot follows a pair of shoes walking on sidewalks lit green at night. Here the black edges are gone and the grains in the image surface disappears. The image’s smoothness exudes the quality of the present, transporting me (the viewer) to the times of its happening, the times of the Black Panther Party.

The two aesthetics — “old” and “new” — strike me as skillful and precise signifiers of two modes of story-telling. The “old” archive footage conjures up a prelude, not only locating me in but contextualizing for me a fiction, while the “new” asthetics marks the beginning of the fiction — a historical one based on real events.

The look of the now ushers me to look back at the past.

What is now is then.

What is then is happening.

I find this poetic (and effective, in terms of story-telling).

The re-enactment shot from the interview — appearing in the opening and, once again, in the first half of the film — merges the fictional character with documented events. The actual footage from the TV interview, featuring the very William O’Neal whom the character has been portraying, occurs at the end of the film. Up till this moment, re-enactment has expanded the story to accomodate a more nuanced reading. This moment from the actual footage — deliberately collapsing re-enactment with reality — summons me back to the real, to a sober judgement (despite the trails of tears, which have now dried on my cheeks).

Good dramatization is one that re-examines reality, defines its crucial moments and broadens the understanding of reality itself. I learned after watching the film that some facts and chronologies had shifted in this expansion. But good dramatization is not about adherence — it is about the evocation. What is the shape of complexity of a person’s demons and a person’s fallibility? And how do the inner lives of their hearts travel to the heart of mine and of yours?

This film exemplifies good dramatization.