It’s difficult to pull something like this off, but Shaka King has delivered a wild ride.
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party Chapter, and his betrayal at the hands of Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). Hampton was killed in 1969 after assembling the Rainbow Coalition, a group of different extremist groups in Chicago from varying ideologies and nationalities, and his death is seen as an assassination set up by both Chicago PD and the FBI.
Whether or not you agree with Hampton’s tactics (his mere existence as a charismatic, militant black man was certainly frightening to many in his era), the man was well-spoken, thoughtful, and genuinely interested in helping people. Shaka King’s script (written with fellows Will Berson, Kenny Lucas, and Keith Lucas) manages to take a snapshot of the past without feeling homiletic or expository. Instead we get to see this quasi-messianic figurehead through the eyes of the people that loved him, including his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) and his eventual betrayer, William “Bill” O’Neal. We also view the federal takes on him through J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), the two men responsible for coordinating his death. While the film takes an actively angry approach to the manner in which this simmering revolutionary was removed from the playing field, it takes care to show more than just one perspective and to keep from painting him as a perfect human being.
Sometimes you get a thriller like this that can tell a story we all know while still feeling suspenseful, exciting, and unexpected, all despite the fact that the conclusion was set in stone twenty years before I was even born. It’s bookended with footage from the one television interview that Bill O’Neal ever gave on the subject, an unsettling step from reality. His introductory clips are followed by Hoover presenting Black Panther rallies to his agents, using them to sell his point that the rise of Black nationalism is the greatest threat to American security. These are heavy, on-the-nose moments of contemplation, but for the remainder of the film we’re left to watch the ideological struggle for O’Neal’s soul while he watches this intelligent, charming young man begin banding together people from all walks of life behind his common cause. We’ve got good old fashioned shootouts, intense moments of violence coupled with friendships and sweetness among the main cast, and all with the intense underlying tone of deep sadness at the loss of this figure.
King’s film is accompanied by a score composed by Mark Isham and Craig Harris. It’s an odd, uneven mixture that sits under the intense imagery and never quite rears its ugly head. Fitting, considering that Fred Hampton’s revolution never got to break above the surface for air as well, and these two gentlemen have created something uncomfortable to listen to as this ugly chapter in American socio-political upheaval is to remember.
Stylish, electrifying, and beautifully performed, Judas and the Black Messiah is such an important film to have on the table in the here and now. It’s uncomfortable and enraging, it’s naked view of the past as bleak as our future became. Shaka King has delivered only his second feature, but one that will hang onto the culture for some time to come.
Judas and the Black Messiah streamed for one month on HBO Max and will be coming to normal home video release platforms before too long. Sorry, this one was a lot to digest and I let it simmer too long before I wrote anything up on it.