It has been several decades since a film has managed to capture the sheer energy of the 70s auteurs. And I don’t just mean on an aesthetic level, although the crackling 35mm appearance of lush urban decay certainly possesses a power that many (like last year’s Joker) wish to replicate. I’m talking about that kinetic substance where filmmakers angry about a country caught in an endless war on the orders of an increasingly corrupt Nixon crafted engaging, entertaining films that spoke to the ills in our own society. I’m talking about Costa-Gavras, and Bertolucci, and Lumet, and Scorsese. Of course, perhaps the reason we haven’t seen a recent version (or even a true American version) of, say, Z or The Conformist is that the people speaking out about these historical wrongs were minorities, and they weren’t given nearly the same platform as their aforementioned predecessors. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s epic noir about one of American history’s darkest moments, is the answer Americans have long awaited. It not only cinematically captures the aesthetic of its inspirations, but actually adds something to their conversation, crafting a film that could hypothetically go down as a masterwork in its own right.
In the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, relations between the Black population and the Powers That Be were in a horrific state. The FBI, fearing the repercussions of another leader of King’s status in the public eye (i.e. potential revolution, miscegenation, equality, etc.), created a program called COINTELPRO, dedicated to planting spies and plants within Black organizations’ ranks in order to falsely portray them as violent and supersede their every move. In the eyes of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), the biggest threat to America was Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a 21-year-old mastermind with a gift for public speaking and the ability to unite. In less than a year, Hampton had created a support system in the ridiculously segregated city of Chicago, brokered peace amongst the city’s largest gangs (including a gang of Confederate-worshippers), and was winning over audiences with talk of socialism and revolution. In order to quell Hampton’s growth, COINTELPRO placed a man inside Hampton’s inner circle – an apolitical two-bit hustler named William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), who took the job to escape a 5-year jail sentence. However, as O’Neal begins to get in deeper and deeper, and starts to see the good in Hampton’s work and teachings, his role as traitor becomes complicated – especially when his orders eventually, inevitably elevate to the unthinkable demand that he hand over his mentor for assassination.
The title Judas and the Black Messiah is both a fascinating and telling entry point into the film, both because of what it says about its “protagonist” and what it says about its storytelling. King and his writers (Will Berson and The Lucas Brothers) draw from the tradition of Shakespearean literature and classic filmmaking to find the tragedy in one of the darkest moments in American history. In the same way One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Last Temptation of Christ are Christ parables, and The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford and Jesus Christ Superstar tell the story of legendary figures from the POV of the friend who would betray them, so too does Judas draw on Biblical allusions in a way that never rewrites or overwhelms the important history at its core.
Like all great portrayals of Jesus, Hampton was a charismatic, intelligent speaker who managed to draw a crowd of otherwise enemies, was hated by the people in power, and ultimately betrayed by his close friends and summarily executed without any real semblance of trial or evidence. Judas extends these metaphors even further by portraying Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s follower, girlfriend, and mother of his child, as a Mary Magdalene-type figure who became an integral part of Hampton’s circle after starting as a student in the crowd. And without ever growing too cutesy or obtuse, it is hard to not look at King’s staging of Hampton’s final night on Earth, where he rejects escaping to Cuba and eats with his friends, as a visual recreation of The Last Supper. Judas is certainly not the first film to draw parallels to the Bible and history to tell its story, but few films are able to do it so well, without feeling pretentious or obnoxious.
Equally fascinating is the way the film portrays its eponymous Judas, William O’Neal. There are certainly several ways the film could have explored O’Neal as a character – he could have been a follower who grew disillusioned, or been a true follower of the FBI’s Big Lie that the Panthers were the same as a Klan (which agent Roy Mitchell tries to sell him on at one point, a claim met with much skepticism). But instead of these interesting, yet obvious archetypes, or even with the more traditional route of “disillusioned believer with a price,” King portrays O’Neal as the most dangerous role in history: an apathetic, apolitical dude willing to look the other way to save his own skin – and ultimately losing his soul. It is not so much that O’Neal is unaware of the political struggles of the time – after all, he makes it clear that he understands the realities of the world around him when he explains his fake-FBI agent con with the brilliant expression “A badge is scarier than a gun.”
King portrays O’Neal as a figure out for his own survival, looking only to further his own causes without much thought to the community at large. Whereas Fred Hampton is constantly thinking of bettering Chicago, O’Neal is leveraging a position as Hampton’s driver as a means of scamming the FBI for a car. O’Neal is a man with no affiliations, who only realizes the importance of taking a stand once he’s in too deep to tell the government figures controlling him “no.” It makes for truly compelling character growth. And what makes King’s direction so brilliant is the way he draws you into O’Neal’s story in ways you may not realize, or even expect. The first reveal of O’Neal inside the Panthers headquarters is brilliantly shot, and each close call requiring O’Neal’s shrewd lying ability to save his ass is absolutely riveting. It makes you wonder who you’re rooting for, at least in that dynamic – do you want O’Neal to get caught and potentially killed? Or do you want Fred to weed out the traitor that would lead him to death? It’s a fascinating, thrilling dynamic, and the fact that King can pull it off entertainingly without offering up easy answers is a matter of pure genius.
Structuring the film in this way and through this allegory not only creates deep, literary parallels in the grand theme of artistic storytelling. It also allows for a fascinating look into the life of one of the most underrated, controversial figures in American history. After all, the only people who really know Hampton and his legacy today are those who have properly studied COINTELPRO, the Chicago police, and the handful who have seen or read works about the Civil Rights movement in the late 60s. I myself had vaguely seen the story reference in Roger Ebert’s review of Z before learning the full background in Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Berson and The Lucas Brothers wisely decide that to bring this mostly-unknown figure to life, they need to utilize the traditions of the biopic trope without becoming a “Greatest Hits” play-by-play like so many other projects. The film shows us, through exhilarating speeches and smart, strategic interactions, exactly how this 21-year-old became one of the most powerful voices in the country, and why a 70-year-old government agent decided he needed to be killed.
Through the eyes of a complete newcomer (i.e. O’Neal), we watch as Hampton stirs crowd after crowd. His speeches are insightful and memorable – I still remember such slogans as “‘Life, Liberty, and Happiness’ is in the Declaration of Independence, but if a poor person demands them, they call it socialism” and “There’s a difference between revolution and reform.” King, the writers, and Kaluuya give Fred the fire-and-brimstone properties we’ve seen from David Oyelowo in Selma and Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, along with the charisma and warmth that made him so popular. His romance with Deborah is truly winning (their flirtations are some of the film’s finest material), and there’s a cheer-worthy sense of excitement whenever Fred seemingly does the impossible, like outsmarting the FBI’s strategic misinformation campaign or recruiting and allying with a group of Confederate-worshipping Southern Rednecks. Judas knows that its lead character is an ethereal, mythical character, and manages to demonstrate this quality while simultaneously finding the real-life humanity in his actions.
Also integral to the film’s impact is its exploration of the true nature of the Black Panther Party. Cinema has had a rather heinous history in portraying the infamous coalition. Most early portrayals were inspired by FBI propaganda later proven false, like Forrest Gump and even The Butler. Recent efforts to correct the pendulum paint the group as an ineffectual neoliberal laughingstock, like The Trial of the Chicago 7. Judas tackles the Panthers full-on, in their good, bad, and in-between. It portrays their message in full, including free meal programs, policing of the racist police in their communities, a desire to create a supportive community for the Black community outside of the corrupt systems put in place by broken city governments, and belief in true equality of race, gender, religion, and creed. Their controversies arise (understandably enough) through their belief in the importance of self-defense and self-policing, which resulted in attempts to protect themselves during racist encounters with police that inevitably led to bloody shootouts.
The film delves into these realities honestly and respectfully, portraying the gunfights as the last resort they have to be, but also exploring the pain and trauma that has driven someone to even consider these steps as an option. King stages the Panthers’ struggle much in the same way Gillo Pontecorvo framed the Algerian revolutionaries in The Battle of Algiers – never glorifying the brutality, but staging the methods as a casualty of war. After all, no one bats an eyelash in Saving Private Ryan when a shell-shocked Upham executes an unarmed German prisoner. The film does not sugarcoat some of their actions, but it also cuts through the bullsh*t as well – when O’Neal is shocked to find that the Panthers have supposedly tortured and killed someone, we come to learn that the murderer is in fact infamous FBI agent/informant George Sams, who killed people on the FBI’s orders to frame the Panthers and allow for warrants on the rest of the organization. Judas and the Black Messiah explores the Panthers through a modern, 2021 lens in complete honesty and earnestness, framing modern-day issues of brutality, socialism, government overreach and beyond without feeling fictionalized or forced.
However, far and away the most exciting aspect of Judas as a film is the tantalizing promise of Shaka King as a rising filmmaker. While he’s been in the industry for a few years, King has rarely had the opportunity to shine quite as brightly as he does here. And a major reason for that is his ability to pay homage to films that came before without ever resorting to pastiche or direct mimicry. Take, for example, last year’s Joker. Director Todd Phillips clearly had studied the works of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, but due to his inability to say anything of value, the film ultimately served as an extended homage, without substance or intelligence – like the proverbial boy who cheats on his math homework. King similarly pays homage to films as varied as The Parallax View, Serpico, The Battle of Algiers, Z, The Conformist, Taxi Driver, and beyond. However, his reasoning here is two-fold. First, the story of Fred Hampton and the Panthers’ war with the FBI actually is the story of chaos, urban revolution, conspiracy, and noir, so paying homage to the 60s war movies and 70s neo-noirs that came before only makes sense (after all, there’s so much a Black filmmaker’s perspective can add to the classic format). And second, the look of the era actually reflects in King’s filmmaking. He adds to the genre as opposed to copies the genre. It makes for a far more fascinating film more deserving of the homages.
Of course, King’s filmmaking extends well beyond parallels and tips of the hat. Every single frame of this film is carefully mapped out and staged. I mean, look no further than the impressive prologue at the film’s beginning. It perfectly encapsulates everything to come: the moody, thrilling three-note score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, the simultaneously sweeping and claustrophobic cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, the lush costumery by Charlese Antoinette Jones, the catchy, terrific original song by H.E.R. (titled “Fight For You”), and the production design by Rebecca Brown and Jeremy Woolsey. Berson and The Lucas’ Brothers’ script crackles with each line, whether it’s an inciting, impassioned speech, an elegantly staged interrogation, or a spoken-word poem (in fact, props to everyone involved for making poetry interesting). King knows exactly when to show restraint – like a sequence implying police brutality without outright saying as much – and when to show grandiosity – like a shootout filmed with the same energy of Dog Day Afternoon or an intercutting sequence between a young man’s violent death and an intimate moment between two parents-to-be. This is a grand display of filmmaking, and it deserves to be treated as such.
In terms of the acting, every actor brings their A-game, even if it’s something of a two-man production (and even that’s more of a one-man show). Stanfield has been growing as an actor since his electric breakthrough in Short Term 12 nearly ten years ago, and he is certainly not slowing down here. William O’Neal is a complicated role to pull off, and without too much upside, considering everything he does is held on the inside as he hides emotions, motivations, and beliefs to the day he dies. Nevertheless, Stanfield plays the role with emotional precision and intelligence, drawing you into this man’s journey, and the look on his face during the film’s closing minutes will break your heart. It’s a shame that he’s inevitably outshone by Kaluuya, who has the much-flashier part. But credit where credit’s due: while Fred Hampton is certainly a showy part worthy of Oscar buzz, what Kaluuya does with it is so warm, so brilliant, and so exhilarating, he surpasses any possible doubts you may have about his character. Kaluuya’s Hampton is remarkable from the jump – his speeches are electrifying, his subtleties are warm, and the film truly contextualizes him in terms of both his power and his humanity. One of the film’s best moments comes when he mourns the death of a killed Panther with the boy’s mother, played by Alysia Joy Powell (a marvel in her own right). This is a humane, touching performance of a man cut down on the cusp of greatness, and it is impossible not to be excited by it.
Outside of the main duo, I definitely want to give props to Dominique Fishback, who is solid in the role of Deborah Johnson. Her flirtatious warmth with Hampton is very real, and she brings an intelligence, warmth, and passion to the role. One of my favorite moments comes when she helps Fred rewrite his speeches so he can’t be misquoted by the FBI’s slander campaign. Amongst the Panthers, so many fantastic character actors show up in small, but pivotal roles, including the great Darrell Britt-Gibson, Ashton Sanders, Jermaine Fowler, Algee Smith, and especially Dominique Thorne, who may be the film’s breakout performer. I’m also shocked to report that Lil Rel Howery steals the film not as a comedic performer, but as an electrifying presence of evil – an almost ethereal Devil incarnate. And speaking of the Devil incarnate, I want to give major props to the two-handed villainy of Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen. Plemons’ creepy performance as Roy Mitchell, O’Neal’s handler, is brilliant because he keeps you guessing as to how much he really believes the FBI’s bullsh*t and the lies he keeps telling his informant. He’s clearly uncomfortable with some of J. Edgar Hoover more vile beliefs, but he never questions orders, even as they reach immoral and unconstitutional levels. It’s a master class of subtlety…which serves as a perfect contrast from Sheen’s gonzo performance. Layered in creepy, unsettling makeup, Sheen excellently explores the racism and sheer evil of the 20th century’s greatest villain in ways that the recent documentary MLK/FBI fail to accomplish. This partly works because Sheen gives the role the same grandiosity and belief-in-mission as his iconic West Wing performance, playing the role as an evil Jed Bartlett. It’s a fascinating turn, and one of my favorite portrayals of the late psychopath to date.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a 70s-throwback, a modern day epic, and a fine piece of American filmmaking all rolled into one. The most amazing thing about this film is the oeuvre that comes to mind when I look at this film. I’ve thus far name-dropped an entire era of classic cinema – Z, The Conformist, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Prince of the City, The Battle of Algiers, and beyond – and yet I haven’t once considered these derivative reference points. In fact, it is unfair to consider them homages at all. Judas feels like a modern-day contemporary to the films listed above, standing tall with some of the strongest American films in history. Whether repeat viewings confirm this to be worthy of that infamous “m”-word title that accompanies those works remains to be seen. But for now, I revel in the creation of a film that I can think about, dissect, and feel a full range of emotional responses, including anger, passion, depression, dizzying confusion, and beyond. Thus is the power of great cinema, and thus is the power of Judas and the Black Messiah.
Judas and the Black Messiah will stream on HBO Max starting tomorrow, February 12th for one month. It will also be in theaters across the country