“Judas and the Black Messiah,” 2021, directed by Shaka King — 4/5 Stars
True stories are difficult to tell in film. The real traumatic experiences of those who lived through events need to be handled with great care, but the film also needs to be engaging and powerful enough to do the story justice. The 1969 FBI assassination of Fred Hampton, 21-year-old chairman of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, is a particularly difficult story to tell. Hampton, a controversial figure to this day, was a largely private person, and his rhetoric was fiery and divisive. The timeline leading up to his assassination is also foggy — largely undocumented and concealed by the FBI aside from eyewitness accounts. Though it was a great undertaking, Shaka King’s directorial debut, “Judas and the Black Messiah” captures a powerful moment in history with both grace and force. The two lead actors, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, give astoundingly versatile and poignant performances, and the film’s final moments are undoubtedly an achievement in biographical filmmaking.
The film opens as one might expect, with real-life footage from civil rights demonstrations and speeches, as well as recordings of speeches by Huey Newton and Malcolm X. Here, King sets the tone for the time and place. In an unexpected turn, though, King follows this introduction with footage of Stanfield, replicating a 1990 interview as William O’Neal, the undercover informant that was blackmailed into assisting in Hampton’s assassination. As this interview transitions into the first real scene of the movie, shot from behind Stanfield as he walks down a dark Chicago street, King makes something very clear: this is O’Neal’s story. While the film is certainly about Hampton and his activism, its core is centered around O’Neal’s guilt, which comes from selling his soul to a racist system for the illusion of self-preservation.
One has to ask if this is the story that should have been told. While it is certainly powerful and relevant, it sometimes feels as though the film is doing the real person, that is, Fred Hampton, a disservice by glossing over his personal life outside of what was directly relevant to the party and his leadership. With worse actors, it might have felt as though Hampton was minimized to not much more than a face on a poster.
Fortunately, though, Kaluuya brings the needed depth to the role. Along with perfectly replicating Hampton’s actual cadence and mannerisms, he immerses the audience in a wide range of emotions without having to speak, thus humanizing and powerfully memorializing Hampton. Stanfield also brings his all in his performance, demonstrating the nuance and subtlety needed to play someone desperately trying to hide their internal conflict. These memorable performances by the stars are accented by the supporting cast, including Jesse Plemons as FBI agent Roy Mitchell and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s girlfriend and the mother of his child.
King also demonstrates some subtle but powerful filmmaking techniques throughout the runtime. Utilizing long, close-up takes of faces and a percussive, bass-heavy score, the tone is perfectly set to encapsulate the feeling of tension, fear and frustration that many likely felt at the time. This culminates in the scene of Hampton’s assassination, which, with the help of Fishback’s performance, strikes an important emotional chord: one of anger, sadness and devastation. The film does not end there, though, but maybe it should have.
Instead, it returns to O’Neal, sitting down for dinner with Mitchell. Mitchell explains to O’Neal that he has been cleared of the criminal charges that were used to blackmail him, and they are rewarding him with money and a car. O’Neal’s hands shake as he picks up the car keys from the table. While this ending perhaps is not quite as emotionally impactful as one that focused on Hampton would have been, King is consistent in his messaging, focusing on O’Neal as a person and who he may have been if not for the terrible things he felt forced to do.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is an important and memorable piece of filmmaking. It presents its ideas clearly and concisely, and the performances from its two stars carry it to new heights. While writing and plot choices may have made the story even more powerful and relevant, Shaka King has shown undeniable aptitude for filmmaking as a practice, made even more impressive by the difficult subject matter. This film as a whole is easily the best of 2021 so far.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” can be watched right now on HBO Max.