Judas and the Black Messiah is a story about power. It’s not only a story about Black power, but also about White power, institutional power, and how individuals see themselves (or don’t) in these larger struggles. Rather than hide behind interpersonal drama, director Shaka King and his co-writer Will Berson wisely foreground the characters to emphasize the backdrop of what it means to try and take power in America. There’s no sugarcoating or hagiographies here, but rather Judas and the Black Messiah is able to drill down into the nuances of power because it makes no bones about what it means to amass a following or fight for a cause. The film makes for an effective history lesson, not only because the Black Panthers are a misunderstood movement, but because it’s willing to ask the audience if they’d be willing to fight for something larger than themselves, or if they’re only here for their own survival.
The story begins in Chicago 1968 where Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) gets arrested for impersonating an FBI agent and stealing a car. When real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) asks O’Neal why he didn’t simply bother using a gun, O’Neal replies, “A badge is scarier than a gun.” Mitchell then offers O’Neal a deal: they won’t send him to jail for 6 ½ years, but in exchange they want him to join the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and inform the bureau about its chairman, the charismatic and thoughtful Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) believes is a serious threat to the status quo. We then see how Hampton works to amass power through the Panthers while O’Neal looks to sell his insider information to the feds.
While history is usually told through individual stories (e.g. The Great Man of History historiography), King finds the space between the individual and the larger societal conflicts and poses the question of how we behave in larger power structures. When Hampton is using the Panthers to feed hungry children or provide free medical care, he’s not doing it simply because he’s a nice guy. He’s doing it because it cements the power of the Panthers in the community. When he reaches out to local gangs or poor whites to create a rainbow coalition, he’s building an army because he knows there is strength in numbers. Hoover and the bureau represent white supremacy, and they were right to perceive the Panthers as a threat to that supremacy because Hampton knew what he was doing.
One of the most galling lines in the film comes from Mitchell who tries to argue to O’Neal that the Black Panthers are just as bad as the Ku Klux Klan, and that there’s a right way and a wrong way to equality. While Hoover represents an unabashed white supremacy fighting for the status quo, Mitchell fashions himself as a benign good guy who feels comfortable telling a Black man that his equality must be accomplished in a certain manner on a certain timeline that only a White man can deem as appropriate. That’s the power structure Hampton and the Panthers are fighting against—one where White people get to decide when equality and liberty can be provided like a reward rather than what should be inherent to all Americans regardless of their race.
Into this conflict we have Hampton and O’Neal. Kaluuya is instantly magnetic as Hampton. Even if you’ve never seen footage of the real-life Hampton, you’d have no doubt believing that this is the “messiah” figure the FBI was so worried about because he’s smart, captivating, and completely willing to give his life to the cause. But rather than simply carving out a hagiography of Hampton, King wisely chooses to emphasize his private moments with his partner Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). It’s easy to be a freedom fighter if you’ve got nothing to lose, but Hampton’s relationship with Johnson shows the personal stakes. Part of what makes the “messiah” figure is that he or she is unencumbered by personal concerns, but King pushes back on that and shows that those personal concerns are the core of the character’s humanity. Hampton wasn’t just a figurehead who was giving speeches. He was a man who loved and had to be willing to make a sacrifice greater than his own life for the cause he believed in. When we look at these freedom fighters, we often overlook those who get left behind, and Judas and the Black Messiah never does that.
That’s in large part due to not only Kaluuya but the endearing and captivating Fishback. If Hampton, O’Neal, and the Bureau represent a larger power struggle, then Johnson is the movie’s emotional core. At one point, she reads a poem expressing her hopes and fears to Hampton, and it pulls the film out of the realm of the academic and historical and into a level of emotional realism that courses through the rest of the picture. Fishback arguably has the most difficult task in the entire picture because she needs to sell the personal stakes of the fight, and she immediately wins us over with her strong yet gentle performance. Kaluuya gets the benefit of the flashy monologues, but his performance is always at its strongest when he gets to play off Fishback.
Surprisingly, the film doesn’t want to make the relationship between Hampton and O’Neal the center of the movie, and that’s a smart move, because if you boil everything down to interpersonal relationships, you can miss the larger power structures at play. Hampton and O’Neal are comrades, but it would be a stretch to call them friends or even confidants. There’s not a single scene where the two share a personal moment beyond fighting for the same cause, and that’s important because of what the film is doing with O’Neal. It’s not trying to render him as a sympathetic figure, but rather someone who’s ultimately in it for his own survival.
Stanfield is terrific (as he is in everything he does), but what makes his performance clever is that O’Neal doesn’t seem to grasp anything larger than his own survival. He’s never really listening to Hampton or considering what he’d be willing to sacrifice for a cause greater than himself. There is nothing greater than O’Neal to O’Neal, and so he has no compunction about not only informing the FBI about the Panthers’ activities, but also seeing if he can line his own pockets with the information he provides. O’Neal is a bad guy, not because he’s some mustache-twirling villain or even because he severed some close bond, but because he can’t see beyond his own narrow self-interest, and even that self-interest is defined by what white supremacy tells him he’s allowed to have.
Judas and the Black Messiah could be considered a piece of civil rights history, but really it’s a war movie and it explores how soldiers and civilians see themselves in that war. I saw the film a week ago, and it’s still kicking around in my brain because I’ve never seen anything quite like it with regards to how it tries to find the dramatic tension between factions and individuals against an American landscape. We’re so used to our heroes and villains that it takes a movie like Judas and the Black Messiah to look past individual actors and see how they belong to a larger struggle that began before they were born and will sadly continue after they’ve perished.
It’s double the trouble with Reynolds and Ruffalo.
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