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Heroes and Anti-Heroes: Why True Life Dramas Need Light and Shade

Ellin Stein looks at the power of moral complexity as played out in two BAFTA nominated films based on real events

‘The Mauritanian’. Photo: STXfilms/Zuma Press/PA Images

Heroes & Anti-HeroesWhy True Life Dramas Need Light and Shade

Ellin Stein looks at the power of moral complexity as played out in two BAFTA nominated films based on real events

A man of colour joins a militant organisation viewed by some as freedom fighters but by others as dangerous radical terrorists. The US Government takes notice, whacks him in prison on trumped-up grounds and, using the power of the state fully but covertly, puts him in fear for his life.

This is the premise of not one but two BAFTA-nominated films currently streaming on Amazon Prime: The Mauritanian and Jesus and the Black Messiah. However, each one takes a very different approach to the premise, with The Mauritanian going for a straight-forward rallying cry against injustice; while Jesus and the Black Messiah is a more nuanced exploration of complicity and resistance.

The Mauritanian in question is Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who is attending a family celebration in November 2001 when US Government security cars pull up to arrest him. He hastily deletes all his contacts from his mobile phone, changes into informal clothes and kisses his mother goodbye – unaware that he is at the start of a journey that will see him imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba for 14 years.

Exceptional, inspirational figures, while wonderful to encounter in real life, make fairly dull dramatic protagonists

At first, conditions are harsh but not noticeably worse than those found in mainland US prisons. Naturally gregarious, charming, and upbeat, Slahi settles in, striking up a relationship of sorts with his guards and bonding during his exercise period with a fellow Francophone prisoner who remains unseen on the other side of a partition.

Under questioning, Slahi admits that he left his engineering studies in Germany in 1990 to fight with the mujahideen in Afghanistan at a time when, he points out, the group was being materially supported by the CIA. He trained at a mujahideen camp run by al-Qaeda and pledged allegiance to the organisation after which, he maintains, he returned to Germany and then had nothing more to do with al-Qaeda beyond returning to Afghanistan in 1992 to spend two months fighting against the Soviet-backed Government.

Yes, he let a fellow mujahideen trainee stay at his flat in Germany, but it was only for one night and he thought he was just helping out a comrade, not aiding someone who would turn out to be heavily involved with the 9/11 attack. And yes, he did speak with a cousin calling from a phone that belonged to Osama Bin Laden (or someone close to him), and then transferred money to Mauritania on behalf of the cousin, but it was purely, as far as he knew, for the care of a sick relative.

But Slahi’s questioners aren’t buying it, convinced that the Mauritanian was an al-Qaeda sleeper agent, a recruiter for the 9/11 attacks and an advisor to the Hamburg cell.

At first, he’s interrogated by intelligence agents who, though tough, stay within the bounds of conventional questioning. When Slahi still resolutely denies any involvement with 9/11, military interrogators take over and events take a darker turn. The prisoner is shackled, beaten, sleep-deprived, forced to remain in stress positions for days and sexually humiliated by masked guards. Worst of all, he is blindfolded and taken out to sea in a speedboat where he is waterboarded. Throughout all of this, he has never had a single charge brought against him because all of the evidence is circumstantial. 

In a way, the question of Slahi’s guilt or innocence is immaterial because, in either case, he is entitled to due process. It is the realisation that the US Government is prepared to ignore its own rules – providing the defence only with documents that have been entirely redacted and relying on confessions obtained by “enhanced interrogation techniques”, i.e. torture – that pushes the Government prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Crouch, to withdraw from the proceedings, as he cannot justify participating in corrupted jurisprudence. While at first it is somewhat disconcerting to see Benedict Cumberbatch playing a conservative, church-going Southerner (and a Marine officer to boot), this crisis of integrity puts him back in his wheelhouse.

Similarly, when human rights lawyer Nancy Hollander – a brisk Jodie Foster, who herself notably played someone let down by the American judicial system in The Accused – takes up Slahi’s case, she is less concerned about his guilt than with whether he is receiving a fair trial, though she eventually becomes convinced of his innocence.

The audience, meanwhile, is firmly encouraged to be in Slahi’s camp, not least because of Tahar Rahim’s hugely engaging, sympathetic portrayal. As a result, although director Kevin McDonald is as ever more than capable of translating real events into a suspenseful, compelling film, The Mauritanian is dramatically fairly simplistic, with a nearly Western-like division into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.

We never find out why Slahi took the trouble to delete all of his mobile phone contacts, continued contact with some al-Qaeda associates, or if he had any misgivings about al-Qaeda’s fanaticism and brutality. (Given that the script is based on Slahi’s memoir, the producers may not have been in a position to raise doubts about his account).

The Mauritanian might have been a more dramatically interesting film had it embraced this possible ambivalence about its hero.

Relatable Complexity

By contrast, Judas and the Black Messiah puts at the centre of its story an extremely flawed protagonist torn between the self-interest that has governed his life and an awakening consciousness of responsibility to the wider community.

This is William O’Neill, a small-time thief and grifter who is arrested but given a ‘get-out-of-jail’ card by the FBI if he infiltrates and informs on the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party – the vanguard of the late 60s Black Liberation movement.

At first, O’Neill seizes the opportunity without compunction but finds himself increasingly admiring the chapter’s chairman, Fred Hampton, barely out of his teens but already a natural leader as well as a gifted orator (one of the film’s most effective scenes uses a Hampton speech quoted almost verbatim).

While still in high school, the actual Hampton led student walk-outs to pressure officials into hiring more black teachers and administrators. Although a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist who in real life declared “I believe that I will be able to die as a revolutionary in the international revolutionary proletarian struggle”, Hampton believed rhetoric needed to be backed-up by practical action. He was the kind of community organiser whose empowering grassroots campaigns inspired Barack Obama and led the Republicans to later demonise the term lest others be encouraged to be similarly effective.

While the image of the Oakland Panthers wearing black leather jackets and open-carrying rifles was the one used to terrify Middle America, Hampton preferred free breakfasts and reading programmes for children. He was up at 6:30 am, making those breakfasts and talking to the families, not just issuing orders. 

As shown in the film, Hampton also saw the potential of reaching out to overcome traditional enmities, forming coalitions with the Young Lords – a Latinx liberation movement – and even a group of working-class leftist white Southerners. It was this that led FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to view him as a particular threat, who said that Hampton was a leader “with the potential to unite the communist, the anti-war, and the New Left movements”. This fear strengthened Hoover’s determination to neutralise him by any means necessary, including assassination.

Exceptional, inspirational figures, while wonderful to encounter in real life, make fairly dull dramatic protagonists (as any biopic of Nelson Mandela attests to). On the other hand, O’Neill’s struggle between who he’s been and who he might become as he finds his admiration for Hampton and his allegiance to the Panthers growing, makes for a far more complex, involving story.

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

While Slahi in The Mauritanian is a somewhat passive central figure, more acted upon than acting (since most of the choices available to him are negative ones, such as refusing to cooperate), O’Neill’s decisions drive Judas and the Black Messiah, with the audience never able to guess which way he will jump.

Writer and director Shaka King ratchets up the tension by constantly increasing the pressure on her character. Even when O’Neill wants to do the right thing and walk away from betrayal, for instance, his FBI handler Roy Mitchell (a surprisingly sympathetic Jesse Plemons) twists the screws by reminding O’Neill of the violent torture and murder of another man the Panthers suspected – wrongly – of being an informant. This also serves to remind us that the Panthers weren’t entirely about breakfasts and reading lessons but, like any militant organisation, had a dark side. 

In a justly Oscar-nominated performance, Daniel Kaluuya captures Hampton’s quiet charisma, blazing integrity and focused purpose – equally matched by LaKeith Stanfield’s O’Neill, all slippery charm, con man’s plausibility, and internal hollowness. We admire one but we understand the other, since most of us are at least tempted to put our personal priorities over the common good.

By glossing over anything that might make us less sympathetic to Slahi, The Mauritanian creates a partisan closing argument most likely to preach to the converted. Judas and the Black Messiah, by contrast, takes us on an emotionally-involving journey of self-discovery, on which we wonder whether we would have the courage to do the right thing – or if our human frailty would win out.

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