Judas and the Black Messiah arrives at the tail end of what will be seen, in the future, as a particularly pivotal few months for Black filmmaking. In many ways, it serves as a crossover to Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7, which itself felt like a 'sidequel' to Steve McQueen's Mangrove.
Directed with style and sheer brute force by Shaka King, the terrifically titled film tells the parallel stories of the charismatic leader of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), and the FBI informant who betrayed him, Bill O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). It's part morality play, part conspiracy thriller — two tones that normally wouldn't gel — but mostly on the strength of the extraordinary performances of its two leads, the film feels rather seamless.
In its excellent opening scene, O'Neal, a petty criminal pretending to be an FBI agent, walks into a bar and proceeds to shake down a few goons. He gets caught. The obvious question on everyone's mind is this: why didn't he pull a regular armed robbery; why impersonate a federal agent? O'Neal shoots back, "A badge is scarier than a gun." And so, in exchange of immunity, he agrees to infiltrate the Black Panthers, and provide vital information about them to the Feds.
It's such a smart Stanfield performance, nuanced in a way that deserves to be taught in Julliard or something. You can sense the conflict in his shifty eyes as he gets sucked deeper into the mission, collecting evidence on Hampton, whom the FBI believes is a violent threat. But as embracing of violence as the Black Panthers were, Hampton was no mere madman with a gun. We see scenes in which he teaches socialism and Marxism to young Black men and women, and delivers speeches with the bravado of Kanye West and the measured eloquence of Barack Obama.
Hampton was just 21 years old when he was assassinated by the FBI in 1969, on intelligence provided by O'Neal. That's around the same age as Bhagat Singh and Burhan Wani were when they were killed. One man's terrorist, as they say, is another man's freedom fighter.
The film's title is an indication of the confidence with which Shaka King directs. This is bold, bristling moviemaking, tethered to the ground by Kaluuya and Stanfield's performances. The themes may be Biblical, but the two actors find a deep humanity in their characters. A parallel plot line, about Hampton's personal life, is particularly well done — adding to the sadness of his story. Similarly, watching the fleet-footed O'Neal be used as a pawn by the FBI is distressing in its own way.
Ultimately, while Hampton was fighting for the emancipation of his people, O'Neal was essentially locking himself up in a cage. As he struggled with the morality of his choices, he became swept up by Hampton's cause, becoming somewhat of a true believer himself.
A lot of the film is framed through his perspective, highlighting the dual tragedies that we see unfold. O'Neal, in real life, spoke about his involvement in Hampton's state-sponsored killing in 1989; a year later, he died of an apparent suicide.
The film does, however, paint Hampton as a messianic figure, which may or may not be a creative decision driven entirely by passion. All controversial aspects of his personality and his politics have, ironically, been whitewashed.
Co-produced by Ryan Coogler, Judas and the Black Messiah is the sort of movie that he could very well have made had he not been lured into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It exists in the sort of space that he will no doubt return to one day. But we must now also pay attention to King, for whom this film might provide the same sort of Hollywood exposure as Fruitvale Station did for Coogler. It's been an exciting few months for Black cinema, but things are shaping up in a way that the next few years will be even more exciting.