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Why it matters actors are aged in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

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Judas and the Black Messiah revolves around two powerful performances. As Black Panther frontman Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya captures the magnetism of a man who might just be able to change the world, while LaKeith Stanfield, as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, channels the visceral desperation of a man who could sell that first man. outside. These are the kind of roles that make headlines, improve careers, and reap rewards, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing them better, the cast is so perfect.

Except on one point: these actors are not even close to the right age. And it makes a subtle but significant difference to the way we viewers experience this story, preventing us from feeling the full weight of the tragedy these characters are heading towards and changing our perception of the world we ourselves live in. .

In real life, Hampton was 21 when he died, ten years younger than Kaluuya today. O’Neal was a bit younger, 20 to 29, and Stanfield only 17 when he was first approached by the FBI. Comparable gaps also exist for characters like victim Mark Clark (22), played by Jermaine Fowler (32), and Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson (19), played by Dominique Fishback (29). But you would never glean any of that from watching the movie, which makes little reference to the ages of the characters. You would assume they were all in their late twenties to early thirties because that’s the age of the actors when in reality they would have been closer to actors like Caleb McLaughlin (19), Marcus Scribner (21), or Jacob Latimore (24).

Such a gap between the age of an actor and that of a character is not unusual in Hollywood, and Judas and the Black Messiah is not even a particularly glaring example. Last years Mank Gary Oldman, 62, was playing two decades younger, while last month Excavation was 35 Carey Mulligan playing two decades older. (58-year-old Ralph Fiennes is playing opposite her? He was about 51 in real life, five years younger than the woman Mulligan is playing.)

Oh, and let’s not forget The Chicago 7 trial, in which Sacha Baron Cohen, 49, played Abbie Hoffman, 33, Jeremy Strong, 41, Jerry Rubin, 31, and Michael Keaton, 69, playing 42 years old former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

(Hampton also appears as a character in this one, and he’s played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., who is 26.)

To some extent, it doesn’t matter if, say, Mulligan isn’t the right age for the character she’s playing in. Excavation. Most viewers will have no idea how old its historic counterpart was in 1939, and they probably wouldn’t even care if they did. But these disparities can impact the way we read a movie even when we can’t quite identify them, introducing some strange imbalances (Oldman doesn’t crush a much younger woman in Mank he and Amanda Seyfried, 34, play the same age) or reinforce outdated assumptions (as if authority figures have to look like Keaton).

In the case of Judas and the Black Messiah, the casting allows to lose sight of the youth of these characters. Hampton’s assassination would have been gruesome no matter if it happened when he was 21, 31, or 61. JudasThe cast prevents us from fully dealing with the heartbreaking fact that Hampton was shot not in the prime of his life but early in it, when he was only a few years old. childhood.

Plus, it seems to unnecessarily blur the dynamic between O’Neal and his FBI manager Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons, 32). In the film, O’Neal relates in a voiceover that he saw Mitchell as a role model, which doesn’t quite match the dynamic we see play out. Of course, O’Neal seems dazzled by Mitchell’s wine and dinner and in awe of his beautiful home, but there is no sense that he is looking at Mitchell that way. Replay this scene knowing that O’Neal is meant to be a lot younger, however, and it’s easier to see why he could’ve been so impressionable. O’Neal’s already dark arc takes on an even sadder, sadder side.

What we lose when biopics cast actors who are not the right age

Image: Glen Wilson / Warner Bros.

O’Neal and Hampton might not literally have been kids, as most of it happened, but in a society already too eager to treat black children like adults, it’s hard not to wonder how Judas and the Black Messiah could have played differently with younger leads. Think of the tender Ashton Sanders (who is also Judas and the Black Messiah) looked like a teenage Chiron in Moonlight, which was turned towards its 20th anniversary. Or how extremely vulnerable Stanfield himself seemed Short term 12, who came out when he was about 21.

Fruitvale Station hits even harder as Oscar Grant, 22, was played by a then-25-year-old Michael B. Jordan with a baby face and dynamism. The hatred you giveThe coming of age storyline emphasizes the youthful innocence of its protagonist, played by then-20-year-old Amandla Stenberg. On the other hand, John Lewis’s involvement in the 1965 election march makes an even stronger impression. Selma because he looks so young, he is played by Stephan James, who was around 21 at the time.

The characters of Judas and the Black Messiah, on the other hand, appear firmly adult. The film encourages us to appreciate the power of its characters and their place in the story, but not their youth. It is possible that this is a compromise worth making. The film as it stands is brilliant and moving, thanks in large part to Kaluuya and Stanfield’s abilities to play their characters as ordinary people as well as towering historical figures. We cannot know how a different version with other actors could have gone, because such a version does not exist. But the casting choices make, to some extent, a less complete picture of who these people were and who they might have been if things hadn’t turned out the way they did.

Judas and the Black Messiah encourages us to appreciate the power of his characters and their place in history, but not their youth.

At the same time, they quietly reinforce the ageist notion that today’s teens and 20s of Gen Z shouldn’t be taken seriously. The idea pops up whenever activists like Greta Thunberg, Mari Copeny or the Parkland survivors speak up, only to be told that they are too naive or inexperienced to understand how the world works when in fact. reality, young people have been at the forefront of movements for social change throughout history. The same idealism and energy that puzzles older generations can be trumps, as immigrant rights organizer Luz Chavez pointed out last year on a Mashable Social Good panel: “We have need young people because we bring bold ideas, new ideas, passion and courage to these spaces. “

While Hampton’s age certainly wasn’t the only reason he was able to have the impact he had and neither can O’Neal be fully blamed for the choices he made, it seems reasonable to suggest that age could have been, at the very least, a take into account their stories. If some of Hampton’s intensity came from his youthful mind, or if O’Neal was more easily manipulated because the FBI touched him when he was just a child.

Movies like Judas and the Black Messiah are not the only reason young voices are rejected, and assigning them more age-appropriate actors cannot be the only solution either. But films can be a step in the right direction, gradually reshaping our assumptions about what activism or leadership can look like and what young people are capable of.

Fred Hampton was an activist ambitious enough to lead one of the most important political organizations of the civil rights era, effective enough to unite the oppressed of Chicago across racial lines, and influential enough to be targeted by the FBI as a potential “black messiah” who could bring about unprecedented change. He was also 21 years old. And it’s worth remembering.

Judas and the Black Messiah is now streaming on HBO Max.



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