8.8

Judas and the Black Messiah's Bold and Brilliant Storytelling Gives Power to Its People

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<i>Judas and the Black Messiah</i>'s Bold and Brilliant Storytelling Gives Power to Its People

“Not all skinfolks are kinfolks” is an idiom used colloquially among Black people to address the fact that although they share a racial identity and corresponding experiences of racism, intracommunal ideas regarding the path to Black liberation are seldom synchronous. Furthermore, white supremacy’s propagation of capitalist individualism as the default social framework positions Black collective action as an inherent threat to the United States of America. Director Shaka King centers all these tensions in his brilliant film Judas and the Black Messiah, a historical drama tinged with dazzling shades of caramel and crimson that documents the FBI’s calculated assassination of noted Black Panther Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

When car thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught impersonating a federal officer, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers him an ultimatum: If O’Neal helps the Feds infiltrate the Black Panther Party and offers intel on their tactics, he can evade a substantial prison sentence and be handsomely compensated for his cooperation. As O’Neal immerses himself into the world of the Black Panthers, his commitment to his own self-interest is pressured by the Panthers’ communitarianism and radical politics. Judas and the Black Messiah superbly centralizes the betrayal of the informant’s Judas figure as he operates as a nexus between the Panthers and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen)’s FBI, while also amplifying the experiences of the messianic Hampton and his fellow prominent Panthers portrayed by the film’s impressive ensemble cast.

While I would love to see Kaluuya take on a leading role in which he at no point has to fight for his life (Get Out, Widows, Black Panther, Queen & Slim) he is an exemplary Fred Hampton. EX-EM-PLA-RY. From the head tilt to the Chicagoan cadence to the emotive gaze, Kaluuya manages to embody Hampton’s physicality and voice without falling into the trap of pure mimicry or impressionism. This is no small achievement especially considering the dearth of Hampton’s fictionalized portrayals. On the other side of things, Stanfield sinks into O’Neal’s paranoia and shivering soul in a way that simultaneously prompts reasonable disgust towards the character and intermittent bouts of empathy.

In the film’s opening scene, O’Neal dashes to his car after a failed attempt to prey upon and steal the car of a fellow Black man. A group of unswindled Black men then leap atop O’Neal’s car, with one even cutting through the vinyl roof in an impressively shot sequence. This is a delectable scene that dabbles in both characterization and the film’s larger themes. These men do not merely cut into O’Neal’s car, they chip away at the facade O’Neal embraces—one in which his adjacency to state power helps him gain access to material wealth, makes him impervious to the law and cuts the social ties that tether him to his own Blackness. When surrounded by the men he’s deceived, O’Neal is terrified. The terror seems to come from an immediate fear that he will be attacked, but also from an underlying suspicion that his donning of the state’s cape and mask will paradoxically never result in his own salvation. Stanfield communicates the degrees of O’Neals fear in new and more striking ways as the film progresses: Fear that he will be imprisoned, fear that he’ll be outed as a rat, fear that America will never see nor truly save him.

Judas and the Black Messiah positions O’Neal as the connective tissue between Black radicalism and the white supremacist establishment. More so, as he is integrated into the Panther Party, O’Neal’s personhood becomes the audience’s entry point into Black quotidian life. This is another success on the film’s part. Rather than wrapping the narrative around a constellation of important dates and events as historic dramas often do, the everyday experiences of the Panthers at the center of the story are the film’s North Star. Judas and the Black Messiah naturally covers Hampton’s prison time and infamous murder. But it also leans heavily into his lush social life, laughter with friends in cars and successful efforts to unite oppressed people across Chicago’s deeply segregated ‘60’s social landscape.

By employing this matter-of-fact approach to extrapolating Panther politics through Hampton’s life and relationships, Judas and the Black Messiah transcends run-of-the-mill historical drama—using these grounding elements to ascend as peak cinema. Take how the film handles Hampton’s romantic partnership with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). In an especially touching scene, Hampton strides around reciting parts of Malcom X’s “The Ballot or The Bullet” speech to himself while smoking a cigarette. Johnson catches him and admires Hampton for a while, just lingering in the door frame. As the scene progresses, the pair exchange Malcolm X impressions with one another and Hampton prepares coffee for the both of them. Their love is showcased not as a romantic subplot or a ploy, but as an additional lived-in element of Hampton and Johnson’s lives. Furthermore, the complexities of Johnson’s role in the movement as a Black woman are not skirted over. In Judas and the Black Messiah, Black women belong to themselves and have their own concerns and aims which are interwoven with men but still independent of them.

Relationships between members of this movement are the heart of the film, because relationships between community members were positioned as the heart of liberation—the power of the people. By showcasing the friendship between Hampton and the narrative’s tight ensemble of Panthers—Jake Winters (Algee Smith), Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders) and Bobby Rush (Darrell Britt-Gibson)—King subverts simplistic equivocations Mitchell draws between the Panthers and KKK terrorists. The film splices moments of solidarity between Black organizers alongside those racist implications to drive the point home.

This is the sublime storytelling apparatus at the heart of the film: The personalization of the Black Panthers’ politics through extensive character work and biographical detail. King’s script, co-written by Will Berson from a story by The Lucas Brothers, and direction collaboratively transport the Panthers’ socialist agenda, community food programs and afroed, leather-clad, beret-wearing, gun-toting image into this textured, human cinematic space. Sure, the film hits the right historic beats, nodding to Bobby Seale’s courtroom gag here and Bunchy Carter’s assassination there. But let me be clear: Judas and the Black Messiah does not pander. I never got the feeling the film was trying to sell me on the politics of the figures it centered, nor make those politics digestible. Judas and the Black Messiah’s greatest success is not that it somehow humanizes the Black Panthers, but portrays the Black Panther movement as self-evidently legitimate.

To truly access the depths of the film’s thematic meditations and understand the lethal tension that dredges up within O’Neal as the film progresses, audiences must relinquish their stigmatization of violence as a political strategy (Black gun ownership, property occupation, self-defense), because the film does not coddle its audience at the expense of the integrity of its characters. Black revolutionaries must be received as agents and reclaimative disrupters of the state’s white supremacist bedrock for the film to be truly witnessed at all. Understanding that Black liberation can not move at the speed of white supremacist comfort is the price of mental and emotional admission to this film. As it should be. Judas and the Black Messiah remarkably fashions a world in which O’Neal’s behaviors are contextualized through the ethos of America’s institutions, and one where the efforts of Hampton and the Panthers are given abundant space to be boldly witnessed.

Director: Shaka King
Writer: Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, Martin Sheen
Release Date: February 12, 2021


Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.