Reel Reviews | Judas and the Black Messiah

by Tim Gordon

Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical drama film directed and produced by Shaka King, from a screenplay written by King and Will Berson, based on a story by King, Berson, and Kenny and Keith Lucas. The film details the betrayal of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, at the hands of William O’Neal. The film stars Black Reel Award nominees Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield as Hampton and O’Neal, respectively, with Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, and Martin Sheen in supporting roles.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover begin secretly implanting COINTELPRO is a series of covert and illegal projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic American political organizations. His number one goal was to prevent the rise of a Black Messiah that could unite the people.

Within that background, as well as the earlier assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King begins this story where a common thief, William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is ensnared by the FBI after given an option to avoid jail time. His mission was to infiltrate and get close to Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

After his capture for impersonating a police offer in order to steal cars, an FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), confronts O’Neil and gives him a choice, he can serve up to five years in jail or he could become an informant for the Bureau. Desperate to avoid jail time, O’Neil agrees and receives his mission of joining the Black Panther Party with the mandate to get close to its Chairman Fred Hampton.

Chairman Fred is a rising star in the Party, with the incarceration of National Party Chairman, Huey Newton and the cross-country responsibilities of Party co-founder, Bobby Seale, the charismatic Hampton was viewed as the Party’s future. The possibility of this young, energetic, and fiery leader’s rise did not sit well with Hoover (Martin Sheen), who directed his field office to do whatever it could to stop Hampton’s progress.

Shaka King and Will Berson’s screenplay artfully captures the mood and tension of late 1960s Chicago illustrating the support the Black Panther Party generated in the community. Chairman Fred’s fiery speeches energized local throngs, which aided their efforts to mobilize not just Black people but begin to unite other minorities seeking justice and equality.

Stanfield portrays the complex confusion that O’Neil experiences of willing serving as a pawn to help the FBI neutralize such an important figure as he grows to respect both the man and his cause. As Mitchell keeps the pressure on O’Neil to provide deeper insight into Chairman Fred’s movement, he also deals with a crisis of consciousness as he discovers that Hoover wants to do more than just jail the Party leader.

Kaluuya, whose performance in films such as Get Out, Widows, and Black Panther, is electric as Chairman Fred, capturing the late leader’s dogged determination for justice, as well as displaying his magnetic charisma that gave so many of the Party faithful hope for the future. While not rising up to the level of Denzel Washington’s transformation in Malcolm X, Kaluuya gives his most impactful performance in a story that feels vintage and contemporary, simultaneously.

After her solid performance last year in Project Power, Dominique Fishback also shines as Hampton’s partner, love interest, Debra Johnson who held him down to the end. For betraying Jesus to the Romans, Judas’ price was 30 pieces of silver; in this story, the sum is more substantial but the psychological and emotional toll that O’Neil paid was significantly more. Judas and the Black Messiah is a bold, powerful, and incendiary cinematic testament of the age-old story of the powerful attempts to disenfranchise the underclass but as the film expertly proclaims, “you can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution!”

Grade: A

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

How far would the Unites States government go to suppress the activities of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther party in Chicago?   You don’t have to imagine now that there is Judas and the Black Messiah.

J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) himself has warned of the danger of rise of a leader out of the Black Panther party and has instructed all his agents nationwide to eliminate all threats.  Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) has a stroke of luck when he happens to catch William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) stealing a car and impersonating an FBI agent.  Mitchell convinces O’Neal to infiltrate the Panthers and get close to Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).  While getting close to Hampton, O’Neal finds it hard to stay impartial and continue to work for a government that has blackmailed him into betraying the Black Panthers.  Can O’Neal survive this job?

With a screenplay written by Will Berson and Shaka King base on a story by Keith and Kenneth Lucas, Judas and the Black Messiah is directed by King and stars Stanfield, Plemons, and Kaluuya with Dominique Fishback, Algee Smith, Lil Rel Howery and Ashton Sanders.  The movie claims that it is “Inspired” by true events which allows the writers to take a measure of license in the creation of the story but the facts are mostly well documented.  The script is a bit flawed though in that if there is someone who does not know the story of O’Neal, the story is made a little anti-climatic by the first scene where the Eyes On The Prize crew interview O’Neal.  Other than this flaw, King and Berson turn in a strong screenplay that is taut, tense and somewhat suspenseful.

With this being King’s second feature film, he relies heavily upon the work of his outstanding cast to produce the goods in the film.  Except for a couple of action scenes, the movie is full of dialogue powered by Kaluuya’s portrayal of the brash, loud and spirited leader Fred Hampton.  Jesse Plemons’ contributions to the film should not be understated as the FBI agent who teeters on the border of conflict with his own convictions while forcing O’Neal to overcome his.  His comparison between the Black Panther party and the Ku Klux Klan is a scene so sinister and insidious that Plemons plays with such matter-of-fact ease that it is eerily frightening and at the same time so weirdly rational that even the audience is almost fooled to see its false merit.

Lakeith Stanfield, being “Judas,” gets top billing in the film and for good reason.  Although the movie is about his betrayal of Hampton, it is the acting of Stanfield that drives the movie.  As Stanfield moves from desperation to surprise to anger and even disgust, he draws the audience into a measure of sympathy over the inescapable plight into which he has been thrust and then snatches the sympathy away as his despicable actions take place.  While the movie shines a light upon the motives behind O’Neal’s actions, it in no way excuses him from them.  While Kaluuya preens, shouts and struts through the film as Hampton, it is Stanfield’s subtle and muted performance that pushes the movie through its acts and makes the story interesting in spite of the knowledge that O’Neal survives the experience.

Another performance that needs to be recognized is that of Dominque Fishback who plays Hampton’s lover and mother to his child, Deborah Johnson.  Behind every great man is a great woman and Fishback plays Johnson as the woman who challenges Hampton to be great and also forces him to accept her reality being the mother of his unborn child.  Fishback is perfect in playing the supporter of the current movement who is simultaneously deeply concerned for the future for her, Hampton and their child.

Rated R for violence and pervasive language, Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful and intense drama about the perception of black power and the lengths to which a guilty and threatened society would go to suppress the movement for equality.  Shaka King creates an unflinching and honest look into the fears of the time and deftly casts a light upon darkness of their conscience then and now.

Grade:  B+