Review: JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH Crusades Into Activist History
Daniel Kaluuya, LaKieth Stanfield and Jesse Plemons star in Black Panther chairman biopic.
WB goes full BLM with its latest historical drama, Judas and the Black Messiah. Serious and weighty true stories such as this are nothing new for the studio that gave us The Life of Emile Zola and Yankee Doodle Dandy, though the general framework, tenor, and focal point of such “important man” biopics has most clearly morphed.
As directed and co-written by Shaka King -- this being only his second such feature film credit, presumably a major step forward from his debut, 2013’s Newlyweeds -- it is told with bold graphic-novel panache. It is the story of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Chicago branch of the Black Panther party and key socialist organizer of local disparate societal factions.
In his very brief life, he worked tirelessly to forge unity in blunt and sometimes violent opposition to the blatantly racist law enforcement superstructure of the time. When he defied the F.B.I.’s attempts to suppress his arising as a kind of “Black messiah,” that label became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Considered a deadly radical and potential terrorist, Hampton was systematically assassinated in a major and bloody law enforcement raid at age twenty-one.
Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya portrays Hampton as a forcible presence, alternately stoic when out of the spotlight and dynamic when in it. Kaluuya enacts the weight and tensions that had to have been a constant part of Hampton’s life. The fact that he’s visibly too old for the role is readily forgivable in light of all he successfully brings to the part.
That said, the teeth-clinchingly serious film, New Testament-evoking title and all, leans into the many past Christ-figure portrayals that allow little room for relatable humanity to show through. For Shaka King and his fellow creatives, the central mission of this messiah is his character.
Consequently, the most interesting characters are the ones on the fringes. LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) plays the main offender, William O’Neal. O’Neal is a flamboyant car thief turned F.B.I. informant looking to dodge a six-plus-year prison sentence. He strikes a deal with Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, Game Night), a white F.B.I. agent who demonstrates some of his own uneasiness with the white supremicist edicts coming down from on high. Yet, Mitchell is a rule-follower, and sees to it that he applies the necessary pressure on O’Neal, pressure that increases as the story unfolds.
O’Neal works himself up to a top security post within the Chicago Black Panthers, a position with privileged access to Hampton and all sensitive data. Though his secret betrayals of the organization are well compensated, he nevertheless demonstrates a fervent commitment to the cause. Along the way, he has at least one very tense Donnie Brasco moment. Near the end, he is on the brink of breakdown. Hampton may be at the center of everything, but it’s O’Neal you wonder about. Stanfield does an honorable job in playing this most dishonorable historical figure.
Judas and the Black Messiah holds back nothing in terms of the Black militant message of its characters. As depicted, Hampton’s magnetic speechifying goes beyond factual texturing or character building, crossing over into of-the-moment messaging. The film essentially stops whenever it’s time for Hampton to speak publicly to an assembled gathering. It’s obvious that valorizing the man’s words and deeds is as much a goal for this project in 2021 as it was regarding Emile Zola in 1937 or George M. Cohan in 1942.
Shaka King strikes an unflinchingly heavy tone while sticking close to documented history, understandably positioning Judas and the Black Messiah as “eat your vegetables” moviegoing. It must also be said that in terms of messaging, King is likely preaching to the choir, as the tone of his fervor is unlikely to win many new converts. Yet, its timing is also fortuitous, in that the message and reality that Black lives matter has never been as widespread as in the time following the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020. As such, it’s a most interesting time for a resurrection of Hampton’s methodology of unifying individuals against systemic oppression.
The film is now playing in select U.S. theaters and is also now streaming on HBO Max.