Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Shaka King
Writers: Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth Lucas, Keith Lucas
Stars: LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Danielle Fishback, Jesse Plemons
By Morgan Roberts
There are many important figures who have been lost to history. Slowly, cinema has started to educate audiences about a number of humans purposefully misplaced by time and white supremacy. In “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021), one such figure’s work, life, and death are brought to screen.
Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was a leader in the Black Panther Party in Chicago. His goal was to dismantle the supremacy that disenfranchised not just Black people but all of those systemically oppressed by white supremacy. The Black Panthers were seen as a violent entity due to their fight for racial justice. Meanwhile, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is forced to make a decision. After being arrested for grand theft auto, Bill is given an ultimatum by the FBI: go to prison or work as an informant infiltrating the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. Bill understandably chooses to be an informant to avoid prison time.
The film received consultation from both Chairman Hampton’s son Fred Hampton Jr. and Hampton’s partner Akua Njeri (formally known as Deborah Johnson). The film is not just a testament to Hampton’s life and work, but showing how little has actually changed in the 52 years since his murder. This is masterfully done by the filmmaking team and actors.
While lost to history, Chairman Fred Hampton makes appearances from time to time in pop culture. We saw a version of him white-washed by Aaron Sorkin in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” in 2020. Here, Kaluuya gives you not only the public persona of Chairman Hampton but the real man behind those words and ideas. There are speeches in the film that will rock you to your core, and so much of the visceral reaction you have is due to Kaluuya’s performance. But the film is not solely about Hampton, a victim of police violence.
The film depicts another victim: Bill O’Neal, a man manipulated by the system for their own gains. A man who thought he had a way out of one system, and was used by another. We learn that Bill O’Neal was instrumental in Hampton’s eventual murder by the Chicago police. Stanfield holds so much in his performance. He neither condones nor condemns O’Neal. Rather, he shows how easily people are drawn in by potential privileges and eaten alive by the system. Stanfield is not getting enough credit for my liking. In cinema, we typically see FBI informants as these heroes. But they are “heroes” because they are white people progressing white causes. Instead, this complicates what it means to be an FBI informant, what it means to be part of progress, because the progress pedaled by the FBI and United States government was never meant for someone like O’Neal.
In Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), we are given a woman devoted to the movement as well as the survival of her partner. It should come as no surprise that before George Floyd or Trayvon Martin, there were many like Medgar Evers and Emmett Till. The events of the film occur less than two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. So, of course Deborah understands the possible cost of fighting the status quo that is entrenched in racism. Fishback gives us an emotional performance, one that once again proves how much and how little has changed. We certainly are not talking about her enough and the grounding presence she brings to the film.
All of these incredible performances would not come together harmoniously if not for the direction of Shaka King. He melds history with current events without blatantly telling you that. He weaves in the way pervasive, systemic racism permeates everything. You are meant to feel angry and disgusted and disheartened. But in confronting the truth – the real truth, we are also given a chance to hopeful learn from it. And in that way, King also honors Chairman Hampton and the countless others in the Black Panther Party who fought – and continue to fight – for racial justice. In lesser hands, all of these people would have become caricatures, diminished for white audience palatability.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a film that not only gives you the history of a man erased from textbooks, but allows us to confront our behaviors, see the white supremacy system of disenfranchisement and abuse that steals people from their community. This film covers so much that I am incapable of handling nor properly articulating. But, I hope that you find it necessary to seek out this film and to seek out other reviews from non-white folks, like myself, to gain more perspective on this incredible piece of cinema. I know I will.
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