Judas and the Black Messiah is showing now in the United States and will be available for digital rental in the United Kingdom from February 26th.
Identity and community are the building blocks of society. They are the brick and mortar of the human condition and enable us to connect to one another; creating the ties of humanity that hold us together. Even in the face of tremendous adversity, these are the most powerful weapons one can wield. Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah demonstrates the sheer power these elements hold, whilst engaging in a complex interrogation of what identity and community mean to those who wield them in their arsenal.
The year is 1968, the place, Chicago. Following his arrest, William O’Neill (Lakeith Stanfield) is offered a deal to avoid jail time by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). The deal in question centres on him infiltrating the Black Panthers, led by the iconic Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya); becoming an FBI informant in the process. The film’s biographical structure not only focusing on events in Chicago but the very nature of 1968 as a conduit for political change. In a film that creatively offers us a poignant reflection of history before we’re even introduced to our cast.
The opening slide projector inspired vignette elaborating the history behind Judas and the Black Messiah; a creatively thoughtful contextualization for those aware and unaware of the broader climate. Here, Lucas, King and Berson’s screenplay is laced with subtle references to the period’s broader tensions. From the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X to the FBI’s suspected involvement in both cases.
Daniel Kaluuya is intoxicating in his performance as Fred Hampton – seductive in his cadence, powerful in his allure; he commands a presence whenever he enters, holding the viewers focus even in his most humble moments. His portrayal of Hampton expertly crafted, showing us both the revolutionary, and the father as he drifts from powerful expression to quiet contemplation with ease. In many ways, Kaluuya walks with the spirit of Hampton inside him, his performance encapsulating the most potent ammunition the Panthers had – their words. As he defuses, connections, and universalises with his Shakespearean soliloquies of resistance and revolution; inspiring not only those on-screen but those watching as well.
Many of Hampton’s words still ring true today, continuing to ignite a passion for change. Some of the film’s most powerful moments come from Hampton’s urgent monologues. For example, the Southern Church, where words fly back and forth; enrolling more people under the banner of revolution.
While Kaluuya’s Hampton is a beacon of revolution and change, Stanfield’s O’Neill is the vacuum that pervades; pushed to snuff out Hampton’s light. Stanfield’s performance is also commendable; after all, playing off against Kaluuya is no easy match. But, here Stanfield works the material masterfully as he plays a character existentially compromised. His very soul warped into a tool of conflict by the oppressors that despise him.
As O’Neill and Hampton develop a rapport, we begin to see cracks in Stanfield’s persona as he becomes a fractured man. Torn in two by his commital to Hampton’s revolution and the need to bring it crashing down for his own security. Here, O’Neill is a physical manifestation of the questioning of absolute faith in systems of power; political, economic and social. Many of his actions the result of being rejected or forced into specific acts from the very oppression Hampton is fighting; his complexity evolving into an existential conflict of who he is at his core.
At its heart, Judas and the Black Messiah gives voice to the struggle for identity and equality; both collectively, within the Panthers and the Crowns’ infighting, and individually, with Hampton’s own battle between potential martyrdom and his newfound fatherhood. While at the same time existentially exploring O’Neill’s internal conflict. It’s a masterclass in exploring political ideas, bringing them together and exploding them, revealing the circuitry of contradictions and complications that lay beneath. Of course, Judas also explicitly shows the very oppression Hampton is fighting. The films reflection of FBI bureaucracy insidious in its banality; the simplicity of their discussions over the destruction and obliteration of the Black community in Chicago, bone-chilling.
Plemons’ Roy Mitchell keeps you second-guessing. He appears friendly to O’Neill, but then compares the Panthers to the Ku Klux Klan; one existing out of opposition to the other, whilst the other exists entirely to further hatred. Surely he must know this? And for a moment, Judas pulls back the curtain. A discussion-turned-interrogation with Mitchell and his superiors displaying the installation of systemic oppression. Fear and destruction playing an instrumental role in controlling Mitchell’s individuality, while ultimately making it pointless. Here, as an individual, Roy Mitchell does not exist, his role merely a tool for continued systemic oppression.
As the film delves into the horror of black oppression and inequality in 60s America, we explore the absolute denial of safety at every level. When moments of brutality are shown, they’re unflinching in their horror and terrifying in the perverse enjoyment that seems to emit from certain officers and agents. Judas takes these moments and zooms out, exploring the ripples these moments trigger, cracking the bricks-and-mortar that hold society together. The film’s final moments drowning us in pure, unadulterated terror.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a film that demands not only your attention but your responsibility. After all the ripples it explores continue to turn into waves in our modern world; the fight never-ending. Maybe that can only happen once we all accept that our world is not equal and that for many, the game was rigged from the start. But as Fred Hampton said, “you can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution.”