Judas and the Black Messiah is a film that will fill you with anger. If you weren’t already frustrated with the incompetence of the justice system, then allow director Shaka King’s newest film arouse you. The pain depicted in Judas and the Black Messiah is echoed in the streets today and the film’s message of strength in numbers could not be any more urgent.
Charged with grand theft auto and impersonating a federal officer, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is only given one choice to avoid jailtime: become an FBI informant and infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. In the eyes of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), revolutionary and activist Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is the biggest threat to the American way of life. As O’Neal begins to assimilate into the Black Panthers and grows closer to Hampton, his conscious becomes troubled by the FBI’s increasingly severe tactics.
When it was announced Judas and the Black Messiah was going to join the Sundance lineup this year, I was excited. The film is one of the buzziest late-round contenders for the Oscars and after having watched it, I can assure you the film lives up to its reputation. Judas and the Black Messiah is uncompromising in its portrayal of the bloodshed between the Black Panther Party and the Chicago police. The film will rattle people. It will provoke others and spark some potentially heated conversations. Sometimes to initiate progress you have to piss a few people off along the way; getting a reaction is just the name of the game.
“War is politics with bloodshed, and politics is war without bloodshed,” Hampton confidently instructs his peers. “What’s our most lethal weapon? Guns? Grenades? Rocket launchers? The People.” The script from Will Berson and Shaka King is rousingly intellectual. However, the rhetoric also establishes a sense of dread and foreboding of the events later to come. People are shot, buildings are set on fire, and arrests are made by corrupt officers – it is made clear from the start this story isn’t going to end cleanly.
Daniel Kaluuya, quickly becoming one of my favorite actors working today, lights a fire under the words given to him as Fred Hampton. When on stage he speaks with vigor and prowess, evoking imagery that is violent and unabashed. When the spotlight isn’t on him, Hampton is soft-spoken and like any other man. Speech writer and romantic partner Deborah Johnson, warmly played by Dominque Fishback, especially brings this side out of him. However, in the vein of Malcolm X from One Night in Miami, when Johnson becomes pregnant the priorities and responsibilities of Hampton create a dilemma. Hampton talks about dying a revolutionary for the people when preaching to the masses, but he is also loved by a woman and soon to be a father. What is more radical? To die fighting, or to sacrifice your identity as a messiah and see another child is not brought into the world without a father?
Another interesting character study in the film is that of William O’Neal. As he begins his work as an informant for the FBI, the allure of the money strikes him. He is treated to fine cigars and good food every time he brings information to his assigned agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Early in the film, O’Neal explains some people’s role models are Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, and his just so happened to be an FBI agent. But the façade the FBI presents to him, Mitchell frequently reminding O’Neal the Black Panthers are no different from the Ku Klux Klan, can only last so long. As O’Neal sees what actually goes down at the Black Panther Party, and listens to more of Hampton’s impassioned speeches, he begins to sympathize with the Black Panthers although he never admits it. LaKeith Stanfield, a breakout in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, is a worthy performer in the role of O’Neal. You can’t help but feel bad for the guy whose gotten himself wrapped up in something he has no interest in participating.
The cinematography of Judas and the Black Messiah comes from Sean Bobbitt, a frequent collaborator with Steve McQueen and having most recently worked on the heist film Widows. Bobbitt films the usually beautiful city of Chicago like it’s a warzone. The few action sequences and shootouts are brimming with intensity. Most noticeably, Bobbitt often makes Hampton look small in the presence of an audience or crowd. This technique brings to mind one of the taglines of the film: “you can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” Revolutions are always bigger than one person, and this revolution is bigger than just Fred Hampton and carries on today.
With Judas and the Black Messiah, director Shaka King knew exactly the kind of film he wanted to make. The film isn’t a biopic of William O’Neal or Fred Hampton; it’s an exposé of the clash between those fighting for justice and solidarity, and those contending it. The film reveals the Black Panthers as not a collective of violence-hungry Caucasian haters, but as a group of individuals who want to feed the hungry kids of Chicago and save lives through their medical clinics. With the creation of the Rainbow Coalition, Hampton and the Black Panthers were able to unite the Young Patriots, a group of white southerners who hang the Confederate flag at their meeting place, and the Young Lords, a Chicago turf-gang that empowers Puerto Ricans and Latinos. Yet, like anyone else, the Black Panthers aren’t perfect and sometimes resort to more questionable tactics and fire off their share of gunshots. Shaka King’s film is politically nuanced in its recognition that this era in American history is far from being black and white. What King ultimately wants is for audiences to remember the Black Panthers and those who died for the struggle not as murderers, but as lovers, and because of this I cannot think of a more igniting film to kick off Black History Month.