The Urgency and Artistry of “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021)

Dir. Shaka King; Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons

[4 out of 4 stars]

As far as loglines go, Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) could be summarized as the true story of Illinois Chapter Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the way that the F.B.I. weaponized a potential jail sentence to turn minor car thief William O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield) into an informant to bring Hampton down. However, within this structure, Judas and the Black Messiah erupts as a searing thriller and character study about how the systems of power in the United States have always aimed to silence the voices and souls of Black Americans who are deemed dangerous by the white Americans in control. While the title of the film zeroes us in on Hampton and O’Neil, and there is no denying that their relationship is the centerpiece of the film, Judas and the Black Messiah also employs their interconnected stories to immerse us in the broader tapestry of police brutality, economic strife, and institutional racism that encompassed 1960s Chicago. 

Director and co-screenwriter Shaka King’s decision to emphasize one period at the end of Hampton’s life, and to frame it as a Biblical story of grace and betrayal instead of a walking and talking Wikipedia article, is brilliant. We learn a great amount about Hampton, about his arc from schoolboy to revolutionary, about how he was targeted by police and arrested on phony charges of stealing $70 worth of ice cream, and about the multi-faceted relationships he fostered with other Black Panthers and rival revolutionary groups alike. But, the script never sacrifices scope in service of relaying a factoid or historical qualifier; for every scene of Hampton or O’Neil, we are treated to those of other characters who are not studied by historians in the same way: Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders) getting shot after standing up for a group of Black folks who were being harassed by police or Judy Harmon (Dominique Thorne) defending the Black Panther HQ from a violent band of police officers. Judas and the Black Messiah tells Hampton and O’Neil’s story but understands that they were merely two figures in the broader story they lived out. 

One of the outcomes of this approach is that Judas and the Black Messiah offers a direly needed corrective to the pre-existing Hollywood narrative that the Black Panther Party could be understood solely as a militant and dangerous group of Black Americans that caused only harm. One of the most repugnant examples of this can be found in the Oscar-winning and widely beloved Forrest Gump (1994). I have long held the opinion that Forrest Gump represents all that is toxic and dangerous about white-revisionism in Hollywood filmmaking, and one strand supporting that belief stems from a scene where Jenny (Robin Wright) and Forrest (Tom Hanks) meet a group of Black Panther members. The Black characters in the scene are portrayed as arrogant, predatory, and violent, presented as a clear counterpoint to Jenny and Forrest’s relative innocence and non-threatening whiteness. Director Robert Zemeckis stages the scene like Red Riding Hood meeting the Big Bad Wolf, and he displays no qualms at using the Blackness of the Black Panthers to stoke white fear. You can watch the scene for yourself here, and if you finish it and do not have a queasy feeling in your stomach, I suggest taking some time to reflect on why Zemeckis’ directorial choices seem fine to you. 

It is one of a laundry list of scenes in Hollywood films that choose to fear-monger about Blackness, erasing the full history of what the Black Panthers achieved. Judas and the Black Messiah takes pains to give a deeper history. We see the Panthers set up a medical clinic to treat community members who cannot afford healthcare, stage breakfast buffets for food-insecure children, and give free classes on the history American classrooms did not, and still rarely, teach. Yes, much of the Black Panther history includes violence, but that violence was most often in response to police brutality and hate crimes, and so they appear as remarkably less radical acts when you consider the full scope of the history they occurred in. Judas and the Black Messiah does not shy away from the complexity of these differing facets of the Black Panther Party, but rather revels in the fact that revolution is complicated. We have long celebrated white characters who ‘go outside the law’ in the pursuit of justice because they achieve goodness and save people along the way, and Judas and the Black Messiah forces white Americans to ask why we have never afforded that same approach to Black revolutionaries. 

I have lingered on the historical precedent of this film because I believe its importance cannot be overstated, and while there is still much to laud and unpack, I would regret doing so in lieu of celebrating the cinematic artistry of the film. In his second directorial feature, King exhibits a command of the medium that should leave everyone hoping that studios will continue to fund any and all projects he takes on. There is no trace of the cloying sepia that often drips into the coloration of period pieces, or the stodgy selection that favors a steady diet of close-ups, medium shots, and frames that aim to inform instead of captivate. King shoots Judas and the Black Messiah like a thriller in all the best ways. In one sequence, when Hampton gives a speech at a church, King balances dueling plot lines and energies with ease. He displays Hampton’s total control of the room by mixing shots of his electric speech with reactions from various figures in the room whom we have come to know well, including his pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) and O’Neil. That would be enough to make the scene engrossing, but King also adds the wrinkle that O’Neil’s F.B.I. handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) is attending undercover to watch O’Neil. King runs parallel visions of Hampton’s speech and O’Neil’s anxiety in a way that uses each plotline to heighten the tension of the other. It is one of the most artfully staged and effective scenes of build and release that I have ever seen, and it is not even the best sequence in the film. 

Filling out King’s frames is an assemblage of actors all at the top of their craft. Plemons has what could be a throwaway part, the white F.B.I. agent who is an unquestionable villain, but he does wonders with it. In one scene, Mitchell can invite O’Neil into his home and offer him Scotch and cigars with real warmth, and in another suggest that “the Black Panther Party is just like the K.K.K.” He is the epitome of the violence of white privilege, and Plemons’ performance reminds us that it can come from anyone, even if they appear to be a nice enough guy. Stanfield, who most often shares scenes with Plemons, has arguably the toughest balancing act in the movie. On one hand, he is a desperate man whose criminal past is being exploited by the white-dominated criminal justice system to make him betray a group of people he comes to care about. On the other, he makes the choice to enable that system right up to the end when his actions lead to Hampton’s assassination. But, because Stanfield captures the nervous ticks, tears, and body language of a double-agent whose heart is never fully in it, we cannot help but empathize with him while despising almost everything he does. Nonetheless, both of these performers have scenes stolen right from under their noses by the powerhouse that is Dominique Fishback. A young actress who I had only seen prior to this film in The Hate U Give (2018), she commands each and every frame she appears in. We first meet her as a college student and poet who is drawn to Hampton after he gives a speech, and once she joins up and the two fall in love, she evolves into a major Party figure and vital supporter of Hampton’s work. Yet, she is never consigned to the role of ‘the love interest’ that often plagues Black women in period pieces. Much of that is due to the fact that King and co-writer Will Berson write her a more nuanced part, but the greatest wattage comes from Fishback’s own star power. In this film, we see her show off everything from pristine comic timing to devastating pathos. She is as convincing in quiet moments with Kaluuya as she is in the broader sequences of tragedy and pain. Dominique Fishback is a name you should know. 

Yet, there is one actor who owns every square inch of real estate in Judas and the Black Messiah: Daniel Kaluuya. I can only imagine that playing Fred Hampton is akin to completing the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Hampton was a man whose charisma and intelligence were enough to unite disparate factions of white, Black, and Puerto Rican revolutionary groups in Chicago, and it was enough to make him enemy number one in the eyes of J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. To effectively stage this narrative, you need an actor who controls every scene and who can modulate between desperation, rage, charm, and seduction at a moment’s notice. Kaluuya has all of that, and more. Whether he is delivering impassioned speeches in front of roaring crowds, laying quietly in bed with Fishback, or narrating the letters he wrote while stuck in prison, Kaluuya nails each and every necessary emotion. I could not take my eyes off of him. It is a titanic performance, the likes of which far surpasses comparable historiographic work by Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (2012), and arguably matches the raw power of Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992). Kaluuya is 31 years old, and I already regarded him as one of the most exciting young actors in Hollywood after his roles in Get Out (2017) and Widows (2018), but Judas and the Black Messiah has left me thinking that he may very well be the single greatest actor of his generation. Only time will tell, but if he continues to give performances like this, there is no question in my mind. 
When discussing movies about history and historical figures, the conversation often drifts to the oversimplified approach of ‘importance,’ suggesting that if a story is important enough to tell, it automatically elevates the movie to a certain grandeur. Such an approach fully misses the vital fact that importance alone cannot justify a film. There must be artistry and urgency so that the end result is more than a monotonous lecture that one could understand just as well by reading an encyclopedia entry. Film offers the chance to relay history with passion and immersion, to transport us inside a moment in time that we otherwise could not experience. When filmmakers settle for plodding historiography we end up with an endless line-up of movies like Darkest Hour (2017), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), or Judy (2019), just to name a few recent examples. Each of those films takes the easy and frankly lazy way out, betting that audiences will be content to see the story of a historical figure they care about relayed without an ounce of creativity or intelligence. Judas and the Black Messiah is the precise opposite of these movies. It depicts a vital part of American history that has long been ignored by white Americans with a level of cinematic brilliance on par with any other historiographic film I have seen. Do not miss this movie.

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