The past decade has brought many films putting a focus on racial injustice in the United States, with several such movies using historical events as their inspiration. Falling in line with similar award-season favorites like “BlacKkKlansman” and the more recent “One Night in Miami”, Director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” dramatizes real life events to showcase the rise and eventual assassination of Chicago Black Panther leader and Rainbow Coalition founder Fred Hampton. The title refers to the biblical story of Judas, the Apostle who betrayed Jesus Christ, as the narrative focuses on FBI informant William O’Neal, the Judas in this story played by Lakeith Stanfield, who infiltrates the Black Panthers to help bring down Hampton, the titular Black Messiah played by Daniel Kaluuya. After premiering at Sundance earlier this month “Judas and the Black Messiah” became an instant award-season favorite and deservedly so as it showcases a smooth, insightful, and tasteful examination of Hampton and O’Neal’s legacies and the cultural war in the late 60s and early 70s between the Panthers and the FBI.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” might come off as a bit stale on the surface because, let’s face it the idea of a based-on-real-events story showcasing racial injustice in America and the figures that fought against it has become a genre all its own over the past ten or eleven years. “Judas and the Black Messiah” though brings its own unique identity to the table feeling less like a Spike Lee-esque in-your-face film about black empowerment and more like a window into a relationship and events that helped shape a movement in Chicago at a divisive time in America not far from the division we are facing today. Driven by its two black stars, Lakeith Stanfield and the Golden Globe nominated Daniel Kaluuya as O’Neal and Hampton respectively, “Judas and the Black Messiah” never truly evolves into a film about the bond these two shared. Rather, the movie tackles their individual journeys through overlapping narratives effectively making this two tales packaged into one film without either story overshadowing or contrasting with the other. We see how Hampton evolves into a capable speaker and motivational leader while O’Neal begins to sympathize with Hampton’s cause but finds himself trapped betraying a man he learns to respect due to his commitments to the FBI.
Overall I found the film to be surprisingly engaging especially since I’ve become so used to seeing these historical biopics about African American movement leaders over the years. You’d think by now between the historical dramas and the fictional films inspired by real-world inequalities there’d be nothing left to explore, but “Judas and the Black Messiah” proves there’s still plenty left to say. I personally wasn’t as familiar with either O’Neal or Hampton before watching the film and researching after the movie showed there was a lot of thought and consideration put into making this both an engaging but respectful interpretation of their stories. Even then, “Judas and the Black Messiah” isn’t afraid to shine light on some harsh realities that may come off as controversial to those with certain perspectives. The film’s darkly honest depiction of J. Edgar Hoover’s (Martin Sheen) vendetta against the “Messiah” Hampton is not far from the truth even if it feels overdramatized and the portrayal of Hampton as a more good-hearted figure in contrast to the FBI’s demonization of him in the public eye is also more accurate than you might think. Neither O’Neal or Hampton are ever painted as heroes or villains, they’re merely presented as people doing what they feel like they have to for either themselves or their people. We as the viewers are left to decide how we actually feel about them and their respective loyalties while Kaluuya’s natural charisma and captivating yet casual performance and Stanfield’s anxious portrayal of O’Neal also provide us great insight into their personalities and why they are so easily respected or abused.
Possibly the biggest praise I can give “Judas and the Black Messiah” though is how easily in manages to tie its story into the issues of the modern day without ever directly addressing the comparisons in the way other films have done. It pulls few punches is exploring the injustice done to Hampton while also acknowledging why he was such a divisive person to those outside of his movement while its themes of racial injustice and turning a blind eye to real problems ring loud and clear in today’s environment. To that end it’s a timely film that doesn’t insist upon itself. It uses its script, its visuals, its performers and the natural intrigue surrounding it’s real life inspirations to force viewers to reflect on how little we have learned over the decades rather than telling us straight forward how little has changed but, if you so choose, you can also ignore those deeper elements and enjoy it as merely a terrific cinematic telling of a real life story of two men from opposite sides of a no-win situation in a system that, realistically, was against them both.
Some people may be getting tired of the oversaturation of black stories in the medium, but for me “Judas and the Black Messiah” is further proof that there’s still so much left to be said about the black experience of not just today but decades past. I found it to be a fascinating, well-acted and powerfully honest film that never tries to force its ideas and themes down viewers’ throats, instead relying on all of it’s individual parts to create a spectacular whole open to so many different levels of appreciation. It says what it came to say and slickly implores us to reflect on the injustices we continue to accept to this day in America while keeping the focus squarely on a story of two men whose individual journeys bring them together into a tale of betrayal that seems made for cinema. While I have a lot of respect for many black stories cinema has shared over the past decade, this one is among the most patient, engaging, watchable and carefully crafted I’ve seen in the last ten years.