I’ll be likely be redundant in calling Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s nonfiction examination of the FBI-backed murder of Black Panther Illinois chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in the late ’60s, a “timely” or “relevant” film. Its subject matter is volatile, important, and seems a natural fit for a Hollywood gussying-up; betrayal and shootouts make for exciting movies; give the people what they want. But more than a costly period piece or a thriller, Judas and the Black Messiah pays homage to its key subject with reverence and craft, making its lesson in history educative as well as enjoyable.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Director: Shaka King
Release Date: February 12, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)
In 1968, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is out of luck. A Chicago car thief with a penchant for impersonating the FBI, he finds himself almost immediately from Judas‘ start in the hands of the same badges he would impersonate, represented chiefly by Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) and the occasional glimpse we get of Bureau head J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). Bill, as they call him, is given a shot by the Bureau to barter his arrest in exchange for working undercover in the Illinois branch of the Panthers, getting close to Hampton and undermining his operation. Fred Hampton was killed in a police raid on December 4, 1969. Judas and the Black Messiah has some ground to cover.
From the start, Judas runs at a pace that doesn’t trivialize its audience, with jumps in logic from Bill’s arrest to “volunteering” at Panther functions, meeting with Roy at a swank restaurant for debriefing, winning the trust of Hampton and other Panthers. To say it’s what you’d expect from a film with a betrayal at its core would sound dismissive, perhaps, but director Shaka King knows when to speed things up. We need to see Bill interrogated by suspicious Panthers like Judy (Dominque Thorne) or crack a little under threat of torture, should he be exposed as a rat. There’s an expectation to seeing a cop undercover in a movie, and King manages to perform his duties as orchestrater of suspense with grace and a handle on his craft--due in no small part to the lenses of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Were Judas closer to Donnie Brasco than Selma, it’d still come out as a solid time at the movies (or, rather, at home, given the circumstances of going “to the movies”). But there’s more to this story than guns and close calls.
Given the literal platform of a charismatic orator, Daniel Kaluuya leads Judas and the Black Messiah as a Fred Hampton worthy of Hollywoodization. Meaning no disrespect, Hampton is presented as he was: A young (he was merely 21 years old when he was murdered), selfless idealist with a penchant for bringing groups together. Kaluuya, who I’ve long thought to be one of our best modern actors, carries the burden of this historic role model with strength and, crucially, humanity. His relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) is handled with tenderness and chemistry between both actors and cements Hampton as a young man. A young human, whose righteous ideals put him in a position of selflessness, even above his own love life.
Kaluuya carries much of Judas, though the critical lens through which the film’s ultimate act of violence is examined is carried by its other representatives. Jesse Plemons in particular, though not as prevalent as Stanfield or others playing Panthers, is just always incredible; here’s a guy who can lend a quiet, sort of subservience to Roy Mitchell. As an FBI agent, Mitchell upholds his orders to work to disassemble the Hampton’s operation. When his buttons are pushed to force him to push further, he yields. Believably so, but importantly in making Judas’ point. Institutions like the FBI are often indeed guilty of pushing racist or otherwise-discriminatory policy, and it’s the acceptance of that policy by drones, no matter how reluctant, that perpetrates the kind of action that Judas and the Black Messiah builds to condemning.
The impression thus far is that Judas is a winner--and it absolutely is, its production design evocative of the ’60s while avoiding anything too distracting. These characters are dressed to look the part (turtleneck sweaters and all) without being too gaudy to disassociate the story from our 21st-century present. Its streets, standing in for a tougher chapter of Chicago’s history, could be any corner of a modern city. As a piece of cinema, Judas and the Black Messiah manages to prioritize its message, its point, rather than solely what it depicts on-screen, while neither relying on exciting a modern audience or stressing on historical detail. That’s a powerful and impressive thing.
Judas‘ impression is certainly one of power, evoking Hampton’s words and philosophy through literal speeches and the actions we see unfold. Here is a story that needs repeating, the likeness of its tragedy to our modern times so similar and ugly one can only be moved by it. One may or may not know the story of 1969 they’re about to be told by Judas and the Black Messiah, but they surely will see parallels with the story of our world today. And if a film can do that, it’s got to be worth something.
So in 2021, more than 50 years after the fact, the story of Judas and the Black Messiah rings more true than ever. Minor familiarities along the way, as most films will have, don’t diminish what Shaka King and Daniel Kaluuya in the lead achieve. Judas tells a story of institutional racism and grassroots idealism butting heads until one’s skull cracks, shining a light on history that is far from over for an audience that is likely well aware of the injustices that permeate our world day in and out. In that sense, one can hope Judas and the Black Messiah is preaching to the choir. But in keeping relevant the past by way of a taut, well-crafted film, Black Messiah spreads a powerful message that can never be redundant: Power to the people.