When a movie strikes just the right chord — passionate, blood-boiling, and wholly immersive — while commenting on material that hits close to home, we are quick to label it timely. While not completely inaccurate, this never fails to make me wince. “Timely” assumes a degree of separation, implying a period in which the work was not true to life. Particularly when the subject is racial politics in America, this has never been the case. If Judas and the Black Messiah is timely, it’s not because it depicts racist cops, civil unrest or structural racism: the title is earned by the film’s blatant calls for revolution and in its portrayal of what’s been true and wrong with America since long before 1966.
Revolutionary in its filmmaking and subject matter, Judas and the Black Messiah tackles the life of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), former deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party. Though framed as Hampton’s biopic, the story is told from the perspective of his own personal Judas, William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who played a significant role in his death. Focusing on the last few years of Hampton’s life and culminating with the story of his murder, the film offers a devastating snapshot of the civil rights movement, brutal and uncompromising from beginning to end.
Opening with footage and photography of the movement, the film quickly immerses us in the sounds and images of revolution. The sight of the Black Panthers is enough to make your heart swell until the images are revealed as a slideshow presented by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) who identifies the Panthers as “the single greatest threat to the nation.” This sentiment is clearly core to the institution and its individual agents, including Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who will later recruit O’Neal to spy on the Black Panthers. A career criminal with few options available, O’Neal seizes on an opportunity that Mitchell presents as a solution to all his problems: free of jail time and complete with cash rewards. Through him, both the audience and the FBI are given access to Fred Hampton.
Though we aren’t afforded the details of Hampton’s early years and childhood, much is communicated through Kaluuya’s portrayal of the charismatic political leader, making his motivations and legacy immediately clear. As Hampton, Kaluuya is magnetic. He strides confidently to the center of every room and delivers passionate, electrifying speeches. Holistic in his performance, Kaluuya also offers moments of pure tenderness when sharing the screen with Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson. Even without prior knowledge of this story’s end, their scenes offer the pin-prick feeling of urgent intimacy. You feel a harsh reality pressing in before you confront it, wanting desperately to cling to their fleeting moments of joy. Fishback is severely underutilized, bringing a steady humanity to her role and often serving as the film’s emotional core. Where Kaluuya’s performance is commanding, hers is quietly mesmerizing.
Similarly effective, Stanfield’s performance is notably compelling despite O’Neal’s complex circumstances. Tasked with being both the enemy and the narrator, Stanfield is trapped between despicable and sympathetic. A “Judas” through and through, he is betraying the Panthers with every moment he spends in their presence — yet, he too is trapped within a system that provides no route to success.
From the opening scene of the film, O’Neal is in a no-win scenario. He signs on to play the FBI’s game believing he can come out on top. Initially, he enjoys the fancy meals, new car, wads of cash, and slick outfits. He sees Mitchell as a role model, envious of his comfortable life and believing it within reach. But as the film progresses, he battles his budding political consciousness while coming to terms with a harsh truth: the FBI only cares about the service he can provide them. He is a convenience for them to manipulate, at the cost of his relationships, safety, and even his humanity.
O’Neal’s story is one of the ways in which the film is gloriously anti-cop. Judas and the Black Messiah never backs down from showing how policing structures aggressively threaten Black lives. Hampton’s anti-police rhetoric is decidedly pro-revolution, rejecting notions of reform and condemning the status quo. Loathing his politics, those in power find every way to use their system against him. The film’s framing of O’Neal could easily villainize him and obscure his layers of complexity, but instead, he becomes an example of how the system offers the illusion of a better future without delivering. A major achievement of the script is its ability to make him pitiable without removing culpability completely – O’Neal makes his own choices and eventually has to face their haunting consequences. Throughout it all, the real evil is performed by those with a uniform and badge.
The message of Judas and the Black Messiah and the story of revolution that it chronicles can not be limited to a moment in time. It is not a film that is inherently tied to 2021 – this script has been in development since 2016 and tells the story of events that date back to 1966. With a radical intensity, Judas proves that there is no time for these discussions, there is no time for revolution. It’s then, it’s now and it’s next. Nothing is more timeless than the status quo, which Judas ruthlessly calls for us to topple.
In its own way, Judas and the Black Messiah is doing the same work: one of the many forms of revolution is storytelling. There is something invariably powerful about giving Fred Hampton the epic biopic treatment he deserves. As the film notes, “you can murder a revolutionary but you can never murder a revolution.”
Judas and the Black Messiah will be available for streaming on HBO MAX and in theaters across the United States on February 12, 2021.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah is a stirring film that offers a devastating snapshot of the civil rights movement, brutal and uncompromising from beginning to end. With powerful (if occasionally underutilized) performances, the film is revolutionary in both its execution and subject matter,