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Judas and the Black Messiah

A charismatic and powerful film, which struggles to understand its protagonist

The Black Panther movement, and in general any black empowerment movement that wasn’t led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been seen as violent and threatening towards the fabric of white society. This has largely been kept as a historical fact for many decades. It is only in recent years that black history is being reexamined and recontextualized regarding the racism with which it was originally written. Now we begin to get clearer pictures of how certain activist movements have been undermined and mischaracterized. Malcolm X was not the firebrand and violent leader that white historians and the media would portray, neither were the Black Panthers and one of their most famous leaders: Fred Hampton. Film has been making forays into trying to retell many of these stories, from as far back as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), to the recent Trial of the Chicago Seven (2020), One Night in Miami (2020), and now Judas and the Black Messiah (2021).

Judas and the Black Messiah is the true story of how informant Bill O’Neill (Lakeith Stanfield) infiltrated the Chicago Black Panther party in 1968 and sold out its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) to the FBI.

The film is directed by indie darling Shaka King, who makes a more mainstream push with this film, getting some sizeable stars, an Oscar campaign, and the production backing of Marvel superstar filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Black Panther (2018)). King is able to bring about a focus and revisionist perspective for many mainstream viewers in regard to who Hampton was and what the Black Panther Party did. There are rousing speeches delivered with an indefatigable and charismatic performance from Kaluuya, and scenes showing the real community work that Hampton’s group did; from setting up food banks, to founding medical clinics, and running child day cares. Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t shy away from the more violent clashes that the Black Panther members had with the police either, but helps provide a context as to how the anger and cornering of systemic racism led them to such actions.

King proves to be an adept filmmaker in the big leagues. He is clearly inspired (and even confirmed it in an interview) by The Departed (2006) in how he crafts and structures his informant narrative (curiously both films star Martin Sheen, who here plays J. Edgar Hoover). This bold construction in the mold of a Scorsese film helps give Judas and the Black Messiah a sense of an epic tale. To tell a story with this specific mindset King needed to be patient, and this pays off with how he slowly lowers us and O’Neill into the confidence of Hampton and his inner ring. There are brilliant scenes of tension, where King isn’t afraid to let drag on into uncomfortable degrees, such as one where O’Neill is questioned in a car at gunpoint, or in some various scattered shootouts. The finale, meanwhile, is handled with such deft that the brutality of the conclusion hits viewers with an unforgiving intensity.

With a tale of historical and epic proportions, it can be difficult to have all the narrative pieces congeal; yet King isn’t misled into losing his character introspections along the way. Fred Hampton is such a legendary figure today, that it would have been a difficult job to do him justice. King and Kaluuya, however, go a step beyond, crafting the famed public persona and power of Hampton, but also humanizing and understanding Hampton as a person. This helps bring the juxtaposed elements of tragedy and awe to his power and drive at just the age of 21. Stanfield is brilliant in the role of O’Neill as well, donning the difficult task of being an actor who is playing a character who is pretending to act. His performance is much more restrained as a result, especially when compared with Kaluuya’s showier tirades. Stanfield’s work should not be appreciated less as a result, however, as the young actor is proving to be an intricate performer who can navigate genres with surprising ease, and should be seen as one of the most promising performers today.

O’Neill’s character does prove to be a weak point for King, however. As indicated by the title of the film, O’Neill is a stand-in for a Judas to Hampton’s Jesus. Such comparison works well symbolically within the film, however, King struggles to establish the motivation behind O’Neill’s work for the FBI. On paper King shows O’Neill being threatened with a prior car theft crime, but these scenes were filmed in such a way that O’Neill appears to only be inconvenienced leading viewers to question his betrayal of Hampton. This could have been simply fixed with some stylistic choices on King’s part. King uses medium lenses during the “threat scenes,” which give the sense of space around O’Neill. If one did a simple switch to an uncomfortable close-up, viewers would begin to feel a sense of claustrophobia, helping place ourselves in the shoes of our protagonist and helping see the inevitability of his choice. King would have greatly benefitted as well from leaning into uncomfortable pauses, adding some semblance of threatening music, or playing with sound design. This would have crafted the background to O’Neill’s actions and led to a much more understandable and tragic figure as a result. Perhaps King seemed unsure as to how much he could humanize O’Neill and his dilemma. By making his betrayal of Hampton seem cheap and unearned it adds to the anger that viewers are allowed to feel towards O’Neill, but it also robs the film of some intriguing character complexity.

In the end, Judas and the Black Messiah is an informative, charismatic, and epic tale of American history, with a still tragic relevance today. The phenomenal performances and some solid directing from King help pass over some character flaws, indubitably making this film a captivating watch.



About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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