Written by: Will Berson & Shaka King
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders
Spoken word carries so much power within a movement, as it galvanizes people to run through a wall or even go into battle. It has been the main weapon for all leaders to amass their following and when the wrong person can use it against the establishment, they instantly become a threat. The man at the center of Judas and the Black Messiah undoubtedly possessed this trait, which set off the events of this film. Aggravating, captivating, and most importantly, educational, this film hits the right nerves and serves as a painful reminder.
With years of jail time on the horizon, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) accepts an offer by the FBI to go undercover and infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. In particular, he must learn their movements and find a way for the feds to take down their charismatic and strong leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Stories of betrayal always have some layer of toughness to parse through because of the trust being broken. Most stories we follow with this structure occur in the opposite sequence of this film where you have a good guy infiltrating a bad organization like The Departed. In this feature you have a man, under the threat of multiple years in prison, choosing to infiltrate an organization sold to him as the equivalent to the Klu Klux Klan and his undercover journey disproves the perception thus making the entire endeavor more difficult. The journey Bill goes through in this task allows the average person who has received a very slanted version of history taught to them learn along with him about who the Black Panthers were and how they have been represented. A harrowing adventure displayed in a deeply effective manner.
Like with many leaders taking umbridge of the political and racial systems around them, the FBI’s main goal did not lie in simply neutralizing them but completely wiping them away from existence. It explains the coincidence of many of these leaders dying by assassination. This film shows right from the beginning the concerted effort to isolate and completely eliminate Fred Hampton. If you know anything about history, you just know the story will not end well but the way Judas and the Black Messiah shines a light on what Hampton represented holds incredible value.
While the film goes fairly light in exploring the politics of Fred Hampton, it undoubtedly captures the type of man he was at the age of 20 and the incredible support he could garner. At 20 years old, I was a sophomore in college more worried about my final exams than leading a revolution in one of America’s largest cities. It truly puts things into perspective. With everything Hampton accomplished at a young age, he demonstrates the power of spoken word. As the trailer shows, the man could deliver a speech like no other. The way he could galvanize people as he says, “a rainbow coalition of oppressed brothers and sisters of every color” shows how a little communication can go a long way with uniting people for a cause against the establishment. It’s ultimately what made him a threat along with the likes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The respect we grow for this man correlates with Bill and how he sees the good the Black Panthers do for the Black community but he cannot save himself without taking them down as well.
This ultimately becomes the big conundrum of the film, as we do not want Bill to succeed necessarily, but I wanted him to find a way out of this situation. There are the moments where he catches himself agreeing and believing in Hampton’s messages and the cause of this group, only making the pain of trying to bring them down deeper. With such a complicated role, Lakeith Stanfield absolutely stuns. He’s portraying a role within a role where he must act like a member of the Black Panthers and be someone else when with his FBI handler. This inner turmoil gets wonderfully captured by him and walks the like of us despising him for his eventual actions and recognizing he’s a man in a no-win situation.
So many great qualities to parse through with this feature but undoubtedly the greatest of them all is Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. Truly a blisteringly phenomenal performance by an actor who continues to impress more and more with each role. He has a way of utilizing his eyes in a manner unlike any actor. He can convey so much simply with eyes and the reverence and faith he can command through his performance as Fred Hampton knocked me out of my seat. He accurately portrays the struggle of a man found in the middle of leading a vital movement but also with the scary proposition of becoming a father. It’s easy to die for a cause when you have no attachments but as the film progresses, his tree continues to grow and the heavy weight put on his shoulders gets captured masterfully by Kaluuya.
Other side characters portrayed by Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, and Dominique Thorne show the deep bench of this film. Each with standout moments of their own to contribute to this story demonstrate how Judas and the Black Messiah becomes about the people just as much as the systemic machinations at play. With large movements creating big change, it becomes easy to forget that there are individuals within this group, and no matter how big or small, they mattered.