Judas and the Black Messiah
2021, R, 126 min. Directed by Shaka King. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson.
REVIEWED By Selome Hailu, Fri., Feb. 12, 2021
Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t waste time. The film isn’t worried about convincing you of the Black Panther Party’s ideology. Assured of the righteousness of its own politics, the film forces you to catch up to the Panthers, illuminating on screen how they cultivated “a culture that will free you” and the governmental manipulation necessary to suppress that culture.
Shaka King’s biopic retells the 1969 FBI-led assassination of Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party. While introducing the party’s “Judas,” FBI informant Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), King blurs the lines between the historic and the fictionalized. The film rolls genuine Angela Davis and others speaking about their political organizing while sneaking in shots of Stanfield recreating the infamous 1990 television interview in which O’Neal revealed his involvement in Hampton’s killing. Conflating these timelines and conjuring these faces brings about an unavoidable immediacy: Though the actors involved give near-perfect performances, Judas and the Black Messiah will not be divorced from the real people who were betrayed.
As Hampton, Kaluuya gives the best performance of his career. He embodies what it meant to be a Panther, the simultaneous sacrifice and gratitude of carrying such militant devotion to liberation everywhere from the podium to the bedroom. Stanfield also excels, his lanky frame never unburdened from selfish guilt about infiltrating the Panthers. And in moments of urgency, King surrounds both actors with a visual precarity, their faces shot through gaps between the shoulders of a large crowd, or their heads bobbing in and out of the frame as they march. Red and blue tones are an ever-present element of the mise-en-scène, implying police presence and surveillance regardless of whether they’re around to flash their lights. Even when Hampton is alone, listening to Malcolm X speeches on vinyl or listening to his pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Fishback) read poetry, those colors just soften to darker blues and warm oranges – they are never in the clear.
The informed viewer will already know how Hampton’s story ends, but that doesn’t make it less brutal. Still, at that devastating climax, the camera looks away, landing on Fishback’s horrified, mournful eyes. For a film marked by so much bloodshed and death, Judas and the Black Messiah repeatedly takes the care to avert its gaze to the survivors, understanding them as victims, too, foregrounding the generational trauma being created, as well as the continued power of their “revolutionary love.”