In writer/director Shaka King’s second feature length film Judas and the Black Messiah, the attention of the viewer is grabbed onto instantly and never let’s go. Just as relevant to the 1960’s and the Civil Right Movement as it is with #Blacklivesmatter or I Can’t Breathe the resemblance is too in your face to ignore. After all, the fight for discrimination and systematic injustice has been going on for centuries. Shaka King’s story focus’s largely on two men: Chairmen of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the FBI informant tasked to infiltrate the party Bill O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield).
Labeled as a radical and placed on an FBI watch list by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), Bill O’Neil reports to special agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who gives Bill cash for any solid concrete information. As Bill gets closer to Fred, he grows higher in the ranks, especially in Fred’s absence which puts Bill in his own conflict on what the right thing to do is. Shaka King balances the three narratives in a way that each story has enough time to be focused on without overstepping on the other one’s toes.
Judas and the Black Messiah is without a doubt a Fred Hampton story. A case can be made that it’s just as much Bill O’ Neil’s story based on how much the screen time and plot is devoted to Bill’s own internal and external struggle. Fred’s rise in influence and power in the Black Panther Party to his blossoming love story with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) commands most of the two-hour run time. This is a career defining role for Daniel Kaluuya – Fred Hampton’s soul is reincarnated in his performance. From his facial expressions, to his body language and vocal inflections Kaluuya channels the spirit of the powerhouse of a human being that is Fred Hampton. He could sell salt to a slug and its believable.
“You get to go out there and talk about dying a revolutionary death, because you don’t have another person growing inside your body.”
A lot of Judas and the Black Messiah focuses on the growing tension between the police and the Black Panther Party. We’re given a more favorable and empathetic view at what the Party’s main goal is – to feed the children of Chicago while uniting with other radical groups to form the Rainbow Coalition nonviolently. All members of the BPP are unarmed as they spread the message of peace to unite all of Chicago. But the tension is still there mainly from the side of the law at first. At the end of the day this is still a revolution and its Hampton’s words and influence that causes the water to boil over.
The moment Fred goes to prison for stealing $71 dollars’ worth of ice cream the tone shifts. Kaluuya’s minor absence from the screen is felt in the moods of the remaining members. This is Bill’s moment to shine and LaKeith doesn’t let the moment pass by. The party is in disarray giving the best opportunity to take them down by the point of view of J. Edgar Hoover ad Roy Mitchell. One thing the FBI couldn’t foresee is the power of the people – the entire message of this revolution. It’s the people that can topple governments and ignite real change and it’s the people that Fred brought together nonviolently that step in to save the day after headquarters is burned down by Chicago Police.
All the while as the events are playing out the tension Is there. Brilliantly built up by the music by Mark Isham & Craig Harris as much as by the dialogue, Shaka King’s strong script displays the tension that cinematographer Sean Bobbitt captures effortlessly through the lens of a camera. Each beat and note pulsates uniquely to each scene that crescendo’s and starts over with the next.
Judas and the Black Messiah hits the ground running from the archival footage that’s recreated of an interview Bill O’Neil conducted to the final moments the actual footage is played. Pacing plays an important part in a biographical story and regarding this story, the pacing is perfect. Shaka King and Will Berson’s screenplay doesn’t linger on any particular scene as the story is told. However, there are a few scenes and moments that don’t fit in entirely to the overall story but still don’t take you out of the moment at hand.
“You ain’t tell me it was going to be like this. These ain’t no terrorists.”
Bill O’Neil’s story is just as tragic as Fred’s. LaKeith’s performance is equally as compelling as Daniel’s, his pain is evident as the chameleon antagonist. Everyone wants to be on the right side of history and that’s what Bill’s M.O. was. LaKeith finds harmony and balance in his characters actions and consequences. As much as he’s motivated by money, his rise through the ranks of the Black Panther Party is earned regardless of him being an informant. His story revolves around loyalty and trust to himself but to Roy and Fred simultaneously. Once those are broken, we are able to sympathize with Bill and that’s the power of LaKeith’s emotionally driven performance.
There is one plot point left unresolved between Bill and the Crowns. Did any other altercation happen because of that stolen car?
Breaks in the narrative are few and far between but welcomed to let the audience catch their breath. Moments with Fred and Deborah are sweet and charming that must be cherished giving a new dimension to the film. Dominique Fishback gives such an underrated performance as Deborah – There is a certain strength and calmness in her dialogue and speeches and her performance cannot get overlooked. Her pain and anguish is felt the moment the love of her life is taken from her and her baby’s father is lost.
Fred Hampton was only 21 years old when he was killed in the raid conducted by the FBI. Their hunt for him is the main focus of this tragic story. What could have been if Fred was alive today? How much would be different? He was an intelligent man who spoke with such a genuine conviction wise beyond his years. Part of Kaluuya’s charismatic performance highlights the potential Hampton had in being a revolutionary. King and Kaluuya spark the imagination of possibilities for this one in a lifetime larger than life human.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a masterpiece that follows the tragic trajectory of Fred Hampton. Killed for what is a preemptive hunch of his possible future by the FBI the world is left to wonder “what could have been” if Fred was still alive today. Shaka King effortlessly blended together a mix of BlackKklansman and The Departed in his story about Fred Hampton. Backed by powerful and influential performances by Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield and Dominique Fishback, Judas and the Black Messiah is a strong contender for this awards season coming up. If I were to rate Judas and the Black Messiah, I’d rate it a 5 out of 5.
So, tell me, have you seen Judas and the Black Messiah and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think.
Judas and the Black Messiah is written by Shaka King and Will Berson & directed by Shaka King is Rated R and has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Judas and the Black Messiah was released on February 12, 2021 and has a runtime of 2 hours and 6 minutes. Judas and the Black Messiah can be streamed on HBO Max and seen in theaters.