Art imitating life is often an intriguing coincidence. In the case of Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, it’s the comparisons between the Black Panther movement and Black Lives Matter (BLM) that really strike a chord. While the film seems to be about Bill O’Neal, a car thief who infiltrates the Black Panther Party to keep from going to prison, the real story lies with the Party’s Chairman, Fred Hampton. In his early twenties, Hampton strives to build a better infrastructure for the Black community in Illinois and the world.
There has been increasing dialogue about the riots instigated by BLM last year, which seems to be a discourse that detracts from the impact the peaceful protests were trying to achieve. In elevating Black people’s struggles in America, these groups’ unity is often seen as a threat. In Judas and the Black Messiah, it becomes clear that amongst all the noise and direction from J. Edgar Hoover, there is no diminishing of the voices of an oppressed group of people trying to bring safety and security to their communities.
As Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) states, reform is to be still enslaved. Revolution is changing. By the end of the film, it’s a conceit that rings loudly, and today, just a few days after a man deliberately entered Asian-owned massage parlors in Atlanta and intentionally killed eight people, six of whom of Asian descent, it illuminates broadly.
Inspired by actual events, the film begins with Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) being arrested for stealing a car. The arresting agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) suggests that Bill could be seeing up to 7 years in prison for theft and impersonating an officer. Alternatively, he can infiltrate the Black Panthers and act as an informant. Bill joins the Panthers and quickly gets close to Chairman Fred Hampton (a fantastic Daniel Kaluuya), who seeks to enlist organizations to help with the Black Panther’s plight for revolution.
At the young age of 20, Hampton is an extraordinary figure, commanding a crowd with charisma and passion. Those who hear him are inspired to be enraged for change. Yet Hampton always ensures that when he approaches a white supremacist group or even another party that shares similar ideals, The Crown, they are not coming to groups in fear of violence and therefore do not carry weapons themselves.
Bill, however, continues to provide information to Roy, who himself believes the KKK and Panthers are the same, inspiring terror. At one point, sitting in a fancy restaurant and tucking into a big meal, Bill snaps his fingers to attract a waiter, which indicates his deceit and indifference. Hampton falls in love with his speechwriter Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), but a series of impediments plague his life as he is thrown in jail on bogus charges and can never truly live comfortably. As tensions rise in Chicago, so too do the police’s tactics to capture, intimidate and terrorize members of the Black Panthers as Bill continues to play both sides of the fence.
Shaka King and Will Berson’s screenplay struggles to find a through-line for the story, shifting between our two leads, Stanfield and Kaluuya. The story’s tension is in the gradual increase of violence toward the Party, but it becomes a portrait of these men rather than an in-depth study.
Director Shaka King has a clear vision for the film from the first moment as Bill steps into a bar posing as a cop. The camera swirls around Bill entering the bar as he throws his cigarette to the floor. Kristan Sprague’s precise editing amplifies heavier scenes like when Hampton is released from prison and passionately speaks in front of a crowd of supporters. Kaluuya and Stanfield’s performances are outstanding, and Jesse Plemons remains a confident actor tackling significant roles with complexity.
As I continue to learn about this particular era, it’s heartbreaking to see the parallels with the current world. Interestingly, Judas and the Black Messiah mentions Bobby Seale, whose story was featured in Trial of the Chicago 7. There are also frequent allusions to Malcolm X, whose likeness was included in Regina King’s One Night in Miami. It is no coincidence that these films were all released within the same time frame.
The stories are pertinent, and there is so much to learn.