'Judas and the Black Messiah' Offers a Surface Look at an Iconic Political Leader Directed by Shaka King
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen
Published Feb 12, 2021The title of Judas and the Black Messiah sets up a biblical dynamic that the film doesn't quite do justice to. Though a good primer for those unfamiliar with Black Panther Party activist Fred Hampton and his work, Judas and the Black Messiah is ultimately a dizzying film: it spends too much time on secondary characters and events, and not enough on the "Messiah," ultimately leaving you wishing it had stuck to a singular point of view.
Based on a screenplay co-written by director Shaka King and Will Berson, the movie stars Daniel Kaluuya as the 21-year-old Hampton, while Lakeith Stanfield as federal informant Bill O'Neal. The story begins with 17-year-old O'Neal getting arrested for stealing a car while posing as an FBI agent, and follows him as he becomes an informant to actual FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). O'Neal is sent into the Black Panther Party in an attempt to neutralize the group and prevent the rise of Hampton, whom J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) dubs "Black Messiah." O'Neal goes on to become an integral part of the Party, all the while feeding Mitchell information that leads to Hampton's eventual FBI-backed murder in December 1969.
For the most part, the movie is historically accurate (except that Hoover never referred to Hampton as the "Black Messiah"), and in this sense, it's a great resource for those unfamiliar with Hampton. For example, we see Hampton's creation of the Rainbow Coalition, which was a ground-breaking union of the Panthers, the Latino Young Lords (a human rights group that fought for the empowerment of Puerto Ricans and other Latinx peoples) and the Young Patriots (a leftist group of White Southerners), along with his establishing peace between Chicago gangs. But, revolutionary as this work was, not enough time in the movie is spent on it, nor is there much time spent on the other work that Hampton did within his community. Hampton's initiatives included providing free breakfast for kids (which informed modern American welfare policies) and political education classes. Education was so important to him that he had every member of the Panthers complete a six-week program so that they would know what they were fighting for. "With no education you have neo-colonialism instead of colonialism," Hampton said. He had a history and community around him informing his actions and intellect, which made him a good leader — but the movie doesn't show it.
The film focuses on Hampton insofar as he was an orator — a mythological "messiah" who is without time and whose downfall is inevitable. Accordingly, we see Kaluuya giving captivating speeches and delivering bits of ideology ("Anywhere there's people, there's power," he poignantly says), while the work that Hampton did on the ground isn't shown in detail. What the film focuses on, instead, is O'Neal and Mitchell, but this too is desultory, which gives the movie a strange feel. There is neither enough Judas nor the Messiah.
We see a lot of Mitchell, including a strange scene wherein he is confronted by Hoover. Hoover asks Mitchell what he would do if his daughter (who is a mere eight months at the time) brought home a Black man as a suitor. It's a weird question, but the purpose of the scene is to humanize Mitchell to an extent, to show that he was under pressure, too. But was he really? Mitchell compares the Panthers to the KKK when trying to get O'Neal to be a dutiful informant — comparison he makes twice, (incorrectly) arguing that the Black Panthers are fuelled by a disorganized rage. This scene with Hoover is strange and unnecessary in the film, especially a film that is meant to be told from O'Neal's point of view. There are a few other scenes in the movie that O'Neal would not have been privy to, and which make it so the movie doesn't have a clearly defined perspective, letting minor characters drop in and out without consequence.
Plemons gives a deadpan performance, with an unmoving face that's uninteresting to watch. Stanfield as O'Neal is disjointed, laughing one minute and crying the next, his motivations described without nuance or complexity. Kaluuya as Hampton is enigmatic and deserving of more screen time.
Judas and the Black Messiah is certainly engrossing, with a brilliant jazzy score. But it is inconsistent where it matters most: it opens by looking over O'Neal's shoulder, but abandons this perspective often. The film could have consistently followed the measurable work that Hampton did, but it doesn't.
Instead, the title has you thinking about how the reason as to why Judas betrayed Jesus is unclear — some say it was money, others that it was possession by the devil. This is a disingenuous way to approach these historical people fighting against white supremacy. But the good news is that watching Judas and the Black Messiah is a great opportunity for you to do your own research and educate yourself. (Warner Bros. Interactive/EA)