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Despite being released in 2021, biographical drama Judas and the Black Messiah is a film that feels like it’s from the 60s or 70s. While it is set around that time, it’s not just that. The film is part of a tradition that was prevalent then but increasingly rare now. It’s a mainstream studio release that is important, intelligent and daring while also managing to be entertaining and accessible to those looking for more popcorn fare.
In the late 1960s, William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield – Atlanta, Get Out) is arrested in Chicago after trying to rob a car in a grift that saw him posing as a federal officer. Approached by an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons, Game Night), he is given the chance to avoid jail by coming to work for the bureau as an informant.
O’Neal is assigned to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and gather intelligence on its leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluyya – Get Out, Widows). At the time, the latter is in the process of forming the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial movement made up of other marginalised groups. As a result, J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen in a ghoulish fat suit emblematic of his monstrous abuses of power) sees Hampton as a radical threat.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an important movie. It informs people about a lesser known chapter of history, one ignored in school books. It not only depicts how Hampton’s organisation came to be but why and what it stood for. It shows how people like Hampton represented a hope of a brighter future for African-Americans, black people numbed by the mistreatment and killing inflicted upon them for decades. Partly it does this by referencing some of these historical deaths, people like lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till whose killing had a foundational impact on Hampton because he was his childhood neighbour.
It also does this by highlighting the systemic efforts by those in power to stamp out and neutralise any black American person who spoke out and demanded to be seen as equal. What ultimately happened to Hampton was very much an effort to erase him and everything he stood for. As such, a movie coming out about him now – when race relations in the US are at the worst they have been in a decade – means those efforts did not work. For that, the mere existence of the film is admirable.
Alas, admirable does not automatically mean great. Thankfully, Shaka King’s sophomore directorial effort is near flawless in all areas of its filmmaking, boasting the skill to back up the importance of its subject matter. On a script level, co-writer King alongside Will Berson eschew the type of stiffness that can come from making a biopic about a hero by instead framing their tale around the complex, at times frighteningly human O’Neal.
The Judas of the title, O’Neal in some respects is a sympathetic character. He’s a victim of a system rigged to see black people fail. Denied the same opportunities as the majority of Americans, he turns to petty criminality to make a living – using a fake FBI badge to try get what he wants so that he doesn’t have to carry a gun. When he’s caught, he takes a raw deal many would and in doing so becomes another pawn of the organisation trying to suppress people like him and Hampton.
However, he is a traitor too. While Hampton is staunchly anti-capitalist – he says capitalism is the way the powers that be trick slaves into thinking they aren’t slaves – O’Neal loves material things: cars, cash, clothes, dining in fancy restaurants. Ultimately, these are his 30 pieces of silver and what prevent him from walking away when he had the chance. Instead, he continues to exist as we were first introduced to him – manipulating a group of his fellow African-Americans for his own gain while the white people in control ultimately reap the most.
Hampton himself is similarly three-dimensional as a heavy supporting character. While we see that he is capable of giving the type of electrifying speeches that would make people want to follow him to hell and back, the movie also takes the time to show what he was like offstage. We see that he wasn’t just a symbol but a real person who doubted himself and felt the burden of what he chose to dedicate his life towards.
While his speeches are sharp and fiery, he has a sensitive sweet side, as evident in his relationship to fellow Black Panther member Deborah Johnson. The latter is played by starlet Dominique Fishback (Project Power, The Deuce), who even with limited screen time leaves a massive impression.
In one scene, we witness in real time the realisation dawning on her that her partner is willing to sacrifice himself for his cause. The camera lingers on her face as she silently tries to keep her composure in maybe the most powerful scene in the film. Also, while the film’s male stars are a bit too old to be playing their real life counterparts – maybe the film’s biggest flaw, which can be forgiven on account of their charisma – Fishback’s casting manages to hit home to the viewer how young the players in this dark story really were.
Speaking of performances, Kuluyya continues his ascent to being one of the world’s greatest living actors. His booming voice and ultra-confident physicality is enough to make the film’s “I am a revolutionary…” speech already feel iconic. But the actor is equally commanding stripped of such theatrics, his soulful intense glare saying a thousand words in the film’s glimpses into his private life. It’s this duality that leaves his Hampton almost a mix between Denzel Washington’s swaggery take on fellow black activist Malcolm X and Kingsley Ben-Adir’s older, more jaded interpretation on the same character this year in One Night in Miami.
However, the real standout I’d argue is Lakeith Stanfield in a tricky part. He has the natual coolness to be convincing as the honourable hero he is pretending to be to the Black Panthers. Yet, through almost imperceptible changes in his eyes and body movement, the audience always knows how he is truly feeling, whether its desperate, terrified or just sad.
Most palpable is his loneliness in being the only person at one of Hampton’s rallies not able to be fully swept up in the ecstacy. Like Fishback’s work in the same scene, Stanfield shows us without words that O’Neal is considering shifting allegiances. To paraphrase another great undercover thriller though: “There is undercover and then there is which way is up?”
Judas and the Black Messiah can be compared to many other great films. With its central conceit of a man undercover, giving every scene a thick layer of tension as to whether or not he will be outsed as a rat, the film recalls Donnie Brasco and The Departed. In its themes and blend of social commentary and blockbuster thriller, it brings to mind Steve McQueen’s Widows, with which it shares cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.
More so though, with its morally complex central character, air of paranoia, gloomy deliberate cinematography and storytelling that trusts viewers will keep up with its many twists and turns without simplifying matters, Shaka King’s movie is a brilliant throwback to an older braver American cinema. It also doubles as proof that US films can reach those lofty heights again.