There have been few films over the past year that have garnered as much hype and anticipation as Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. It stars LaKeith Standfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback, and Jesse Plemons. Though the film certainly isn’t a big budget blockbuster, a combination of the legacy and continued relevance of its subject matter–particularly with the further rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the phenomenal acting talent involved–put those in the film community on notice. On February 12th, the film was released both in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service after premiering. I sat down to watch it recently, the first time for my own enjoyment and the second time through a more critical lens. Here’s what I thought of Judas and the Black Messiah.
The bulk of the film is set in the years 1968 and 1969, the tail end of the Civil Rights movement in Chicago, Illinois. Great leaders of the time, such as Medger Evers, Malcom X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had already been assassinated and the rage from years of prejudice and violence had given the movement a more militant complexion: The Black Panther Party, a political organization with revolutionary goals that advocated for Black nationalism and pride, political leftism, socialism, and armed defense against police brutality. The movement was founded by Hughie Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California. It soon grew to become a national organization, and the young Fred Hampton rose through the ranks to become the chairman of the Chicago chapter and the vice chairman of the entire party. The charismatic young leader came to be seen as the public face and voice of the Panthers, and the film tackles the subject of how that made him public enemy number one in the eyes of the federal government. Hampton was killed in an apartment the Panthers were staying in during a raid staged by the local police department. For years, people (even historians and scholars) have speculated on whether or not this raid was part of a larger plan by the powers at be to try and get rid of Fred Hampton out of fear of what he could one day accomplish. The film affirms this and presents the true story–full of lies, deceit, and betrayal, and isn’t nearly as known as it should be.
As the biblical roots of the title suggest, the film at its core is a story about a betrayal. Small-time crook, William “Bill” O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself in some serious trouble with the law, with the only way out of it being to use his specific set of skills to assist the FBI. Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) gives him the task of infiltrating the Black Panther Party and getting close to Fred Hampton, while feeding Mitchell and his superiors information about the party’s operations. But, as Bill carves out a place in the party as he was instructed, he begins to form real friendships with his fellow Panthers and Hampton himself, as well as believe in the cause that had once been nothing more than a cover for him, and all this while tensions between the Panthers and law enforcement reach a fever pitch. Bill must decide where his loyalties truly lie and will make a decision that will alter the course of history. The plot may seem simple at first glance, but due to carefully woven twists and turns, it easily lends itself to a sense of escalating tension as it hurdles to the inevitable tragic conclusion. It’s a tightly wound narrative, with a greater focus on the characters than the broader context of what was happening with the Black Panthers. This character-driven nature lends itself well to the type of story the film is trying to tell.
I’ll start with the acting, which is just top notch.To put it bluntly, there’s hardly an average performance in this movie, let alone a bad one. Lakeith Stanfield is spectacular as always (look no further than BlacKkKlansmen, Sorry to Bother You and Donald Glover’s smash hit FX series, Atlanta). Bill O’Neal may start as nothing more than a small-time crook who’s in over his head, but he becomes more and more conflicted as the story progresses. Stanfield captures this perfectly, as we as the audience can see and feel his loyalties being tested as the friendships he develops with the Panthers (primarily Fred Hampton) begin to become real, which complicates things. A lot hinges on how well Stanfield is able to bring O’Neal to life, and he knocks it out of the park. Daniel Kaluuya was aso exemplary in the role of the great Hampton. He conveys his unmistakable charisma and gravitas both as a speaker and a leader, which is no easy feat. There is a lot of pressure in trying to do such a notable historical figure of such stature and importance the due amount of justice, especially one that has been misrepresented by so many for so long, like Fred Hampton. Dominique Fishback gives a strong supporting performance as Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri) and Plemmons plays a perfect manipulative FBI agent, seeking to use Bill and the information he provides to take down the Panthers.
The film’s crowning achievement though is the work it does to dispel the lies and mistruths often put out about the Black Panthers. There have been narratives put out by everyday people, pundits, and even our own government that are used to paint the Panthers as something they weren’t. The equal and opposite counterpart to the Klu Klux Klan, that preached black supremacy and violent action against all white people. These are blatant falsehoods that the movie does not entertain for a second, other than to disprove them and show them as the manipulation tactics that they were. The director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, himself, says that the Panthers pose a greater threat to the country than any of its foreign enemies, including China and the Soviet Union (which says something since this was during the height of the Cold War). This shows the degree to which they feared and despised the Panthers socialist and pro-black message. In direct juxtaposition to the way they are presented, they are shown in the film to feed impoverished children around Chicago and defend people from police brutality, while affirming that they were not an anti-white organization; they summarily despised the governmental systems that allow for systematic racism and oppression. The real legacy of the Panthers is upheld, as the filmmakers cooperated with Fred Hampton Jr., son of Fred Hampton and current president and chairman of the Black Panther Party cubs to ensure historical accuracy in the depiction of not only his father, but the party and their mission as a whole. This manufactured, false narrative of a “Black KKK” doesn’t even get time to breathe and the tactic used to shut down positive conversations about them is called out for what it is .