Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah is an eye-opening look at the betrayal of Black Panthers Chairman Fred Hampton by an FBI informant. Stars LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya give compelling performances in a film that's not just about fighting "the man" or taking down "the system", but instead about how we all become a cog in the never-ending machine of power and injustice.
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield star in Shaka King‘s latest powerhouse drama Judas and the Black Messiah, which streams on HBO Max the same day it hits theaters (February 12th, 2021). The biopic, which depicts the life of Black Panthers Chairman Fred Hampton, hits like a truck to the chest, revealing not just the struggles of oppression, but also the reality of greed and the desire to fit in and and want the simple life at the cost of becoming what you hate and fear the most.
Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is the Illinois Chairman of the Black Panthers. He’s a freedom fighter and liberator of peace and is unafraid to stand up against injustice in hopes of creating an equal world for all of his brothers and sisters.
As his voice grows louder, his power and influence starts to reach others willing to stand up and put a stop to racism and hatred. This sparks the FBI’s interest, which leads to Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) enlisting Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) to become an FBI informant, in exchange for charges being dropped on a robbery/false identification charge, as well as some cash and the idea of freedom.
Director Shaka King‘s film might be titled on-the-nose with its intentions of revealing an informant so close to one of the Black Panthers’ most powerful leaders, yet the film smartly explores the idea that we’re all working for “the man” or “the system” in some way or another, despite not actively being apart of the problem or the solution.
King’s film rests on the shoulders of powerful performances from both Stanfield and Kaluuya, expertly shifting focus back-and-forth to give us both men’s perspectives, which couldn’t be further apart.
Daniel Kaluuya‘s Fred Hampton is a true believer of the cause. He puts his faith and energy into the people and the fight that he faces day in and day out. He would literally die for equality and he reminds the world of that in each and every one of his speeches. He’s brave, stubborn and a realist that just wants to actively engage in change, whether that means by peace or by war.
LaKeith Stanfield‘s Bill O’Neal is almost the complete opposite. He’s introduced to us via a car robbery while impersonating an FBI agent, which lands him in the hands of the law and at the mercy of Agent Roy Mitchell. It is here that he quickly and calmly makes a deal to become an FBI informant.
Everything you need to know about Bill O’Neal can be understood within the first fifteen minutes of the film. His intentions are clear — he just wants some cash in his pocket, a car to his name and to be out of prison whenever possible.
It’s not that he doesn’t believe in the work of the Black Panthers as much as he just doesn’t care. His focus is on that of survival and that means ratting out on whoever plans on endangering that comfort.
King’s film doesn’t dance around this fact and instead explores it greatly. The comparisons between Stanfield and Kaluuya’s characters are obvious, but what’s more interesting is the similarities between Stanfield and Plemons.
See, Plemons is just another family man trying to make it in his role as an FBI Agent and to have a successful career that hopefully involves raises and some security as he raises his children. He’s no different than Stanfield’s character when it comes to serving up someone in exchange for his own protection, race or cause not even considered.
This gives the film added complexity as it not only tackles racism and the struggle of the Black Panthers, but now becomes a drama about the system and its ability to oppress anyone that stands against it. It also becomes a film about turning people into the very thing that they hate or would otherwise stand up against, without ever even allowing you to realize that you never had a chance to begin with.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an interesting biopic in that it’s not told through the eyes of Fred, but instead through Bill, which gives it a whole other life outside of the core story.
And I must say, watching Stanfield’s Bill go so deeply undercover to the point of straight-up crying while interacting with Fred at one point in the film, absolutely destroyed me.
The uneasy environment and the tension created comes to a complete boil and then the film ends and you’re left sitting back in your chair, wondering if things have changed at all since this period in time?
I’m not sure if they have and that’s a frightening realization that director Shaka King exposes through this moving and painful examination of greed and abuse of power.
My only complaint with the film is that it feels short, despite clocking in at just over two hours. It felt like a middle portion was left on the cutting room floor and things just sort of wrapped themselves up in fast succession.
That being said, I am not complaining about the length of the film as it never felt slow or like it was dragging its feet, but I do wonder if a director’s cut exists that further explores a few portions of the film that felt glossed over?
Judas and the Black Messiah is available to check out in theaters right now or on HBO Max for a limited time. Those looking for a stirring drama that hits hard and asks you to open your eyes, will want to make it a priority to see this one as soon as possible. As I said before, Stanfield and Kaluuya are giving some of the best performances of their career, solidifying their names amongst the Hollywood stars.