Judas and the Black Messiah is a shot to the chest

It is not a spoiler to say that Judas and the Black Messiah ends with the FBI-led assassination of Fred Hampton, the former chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. It is history.

Still, it is a history not many Americans are aware of. If you grew up in a mostly white, conservative Christian community like I did, you probably never learned of the young revolutionary in school, much less that the United States government ended his life at the age of twenty-one. Twenty-one. I sure did not, at least. My only knowledge of Hampton prior to watching this film came from my interest in rap music. Even with that, it was a knowledge clouded by ignorance. 

In Judas and the Black Messiah, director Shaka King leaves no doubt. In just his second feature-length film, he pulls no punches in retelling the killing that occurred during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. This grittier style of filmmaking comes as a bracing—yet not unwelcome—shot to the chest, especially considering other civil rights era films from this Oscar season that prefer a more whitewashed version of history. (Here’s to you, The Trial of the Chicago Seven). 

To illustrate how it is grounded in these historical realities, Judas and the Black Messiah bookends its narrative with footage from the 1990 PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize 2, a series that examined the civil rights movement. Here, the viewer meets the real-life Bill O’Neal, the Judas in the title and the FBI informant whose betrayal of Hampton ultimately led to his death.

Through this first introduction, it is clear the film takes not Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), but O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield) to be the main character of the story. In terms of screenwriting potential, this choice had much to offer as the relationship between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot (the archetypal character dynamic that Judas and the Black Messiah draws from) is never explored in the Bible. Neither is it in this film, unfortunately.

For most of the 126-minute runtime, O’Neal is held at a distance. His interactions with Hampton do not say anything about the relationship between the betrayer and the betrayed. To be sure, the reality of Hampton never realizing the rat in his ranks makes this study difficult, but nonetheless possible. For an actor as talented as Stanfield, his character felt underwritten. 

It is because of Stanfield, though, and even more so because of Kaluuya, that Judas and the Black Messiah has earned Oscar buzz.  This past week, in fact, Kaluuya took home the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. 

His performance is magnetic in a way that is just as heroic and even more tenacious than Chadwick Boseman’s similar (yet fictitious) Christ figure of Stormin’ Norman from Da Five Bloods. Kaluuya prowls as Hampton. And when he speaks, his followers listen—just as they did with a hunger for revolution in the 1960s. 

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From his real-life speeches from his time in the Black Panther Party it is evident Hampton fought for and was part of a greater good that he believed could exist outside himself and his leadership—something typically characteristic of Christ figures in film. This truth is followed in the writing of his character. His dialogue also does not shy away from the Marxist-Leninist ideologies that Hampton ascribed to.

“Anywhere there’s people, there’s power.” Hampton said. “You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder liberation. You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder revolution. And you can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom!”

These pieces of speeches that Kaluuya fires off effectively build towards his death almost as if it were an altogether tragic inevitability. Not because Hampton needed to die for the sake of his cause (like Jesus Christ), but that his cause was too revolutionary for the racist systems and ideologies that plagued America in the 1960s and still plague this country today. In essence, Hampton died as the result of, but did not atone for, racism towards black people in America, which makes his fate all the more devastating.

Judas and the Black Messiah and its portrayal of the murdered Fred Hampton offer an antidote to the fearmongering stereotypes that linger around the Black Panther Party in the twenty-first century. It is gritty when it needs to recognize systemic oppression and prejudice and touching in the moments between. Dominique Fishback shines as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’ girlfriend.

This film, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Da Five Bloods, and One Night in Miami make a necessary quartet of civil rights era films from this Oscar season that all seem to be coming out at the right time.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

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