Judas and the Black Messiah is a film from a rising Black director, starring two of the most talented Black actors in Hollywood, about one of the most prominent figures of the Black Panther Party: Fred Hampton. As someone who isn’t American, I knew very little about the Black Panther Party other than their open carry policy during the 60s and 70s and the FBI’s crusade against them. Shaka King’s latest film gives us a look into the life of the iconic Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the man who betrayed him to the FBI, William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield).
The film opens with an interview of O’Neal, the titular Judas, years after the fateful end of Hampton. He is asked about his involvement in Hampton’s demise and answers vaguely. We are then transported to the beginning of it all, with O’Neal attempting a car robbery by impersonating an FBI agent. He is then caught and given the choice to either serve time in jail or infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gain the trust of its charismatic leader. O’Neal does what he is told under the supervision of FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons).
The FBI is afraid of Hampton: he is outspoken in his belief in socialism and Black empowerment. The FBI sees the party as a threat despite serving their community. With its history against the civil rights movement, the FBI is determined to stop another charismatic leader, a “Black Messiah”, so to say. O’Neal gains Hampton’s trust and reports frequently to his handler. The film also explores Hampton’s romance with member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who is smitten by his ability to inspire people through speech.
Playing such an iconic figure, Kaluuya is given rich material to work with. He delivers a fervent performance that blew my mind. Same goes with Stanfield as O’Neal, who is subtle as a man that exploits the people who trust him. But the scene stealer of the film has to be Fishback, who plays Johnson. Fishback and Kaluuya’s scenes glow with chemistry; it is a shame that the film doesn’t dive deeper into their romance. It focuses more on O’Neal’s betrayal and the FBI’s crusade against the party.
With King’s previous films being mostly comedy, this tragic biographical portrait of Hampton shows his range as a director. Aside from the powerful performances, the film boasts beautiful cinematography from Sean Bobbitt, who handles the fateful night of the raid and Hampton’s assassination with caution; and a score from Mark Isham and Craig Harris that evokes the intensity of each scene. The powerful performances are also accompanied by a strong script, which one might expect from a movie about a strong orator.
The storyline can feel scattered: its title directs us to the two figures, whereas the plot tries to divide its focus between the FBI, the other members of the chapter of the party, the romance of Hampton and Johnson, and Hampton’s incarceration. Another thing that bothered me was how the film tried to frame O’Neal’s intentions: it never delivered a straight answer, though perhaps O’Neal never gave one in real life.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful biographical film that gives us a look into how a charismatic leader with a flame for unity and Black self-determination was extinguished because of the threat he posed to the white men in power. It’s beautifully made, but is out of focus on which story is the most important to tell. Still, King delivers a gut-wrenching film that still resonates today.