Judas and The Black Messiah is a true story of betrayal, espionage, and political upheaval. And it’s a timely tale for our modern world. I wish history like this was more common knowledge, but I’d rather learn through arts and entertainment than never at all! Read on for my thoughts…
I had next to no expectations going into this movie. I didn’t even know what it was about. But since you’re reading a review I assume you want to be clued in– so here’s the gist: Judas and the Black Messiah is a historical drama set in the late 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. At this time, there existed a political group called The Black Panthers: an organized party of men and women trained and disciplined like soldiers– willing to combat an oppressive and bigoted government with force and bloodshed.
Of course the government wasn’t exactly a fan of The Black Panther Party, to put the issue mildly. The BPP were viewed (at least according to the film) as a threat to American stability. One Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya)– leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party– was a prominent BPP member targeted by the FBI. But they lacked the evidence to arrest him. To their rescue came Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield): a young criminal from Chicago, blackmailed by the FBI to infiltrate and spy on Fred Hampton. And so the plot kicks into gear!
This movie hooked me in from its opening scene! Gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of Sean Bobbitt) drew me in with vibrant neon signs and a noir-ish aesthetic. A man in a trench coat walks a darkened city street and heads into a seedy bar. If you’ve seen old movies, you probably know who this guy is already: he’s the law. And since we know this is the late 60s (based on the cars and the fashions) and Judas revolves around the Civil Rights Movement, this agent walking into an African-American bar will likely cause or otherwise be involved in a confrontation. Had me in anticipation from the get-go,
A lot of Judas has an underlying tension this way. We know sh*t will hit the fan; we just don’t know when. Bill O’Neal’s character feels much the same way throughout his story. If O’Neal quits his spy mission, the FBI will send him to prison; and if the Black Panthers catch him, they may murder him for being an informant. O’Neal’s only real choice is to ride out his job and hope for the best.
One of Judas and the Black Messiah‘s most fascinating elements is O’Neal’s perspective on the conflict between the BPP and the Government. He begins fairly neutral on the matter but slowly becomes drawn to both sides for varying reasons. In many ways he looks up to his FBI handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons), as a role model and is uncomfortable with the black panthers’ extreme tactics; yet he’s also enraged by institutional racism and appreciates the BPP’s ideals.
Along with Bill O’Neal’s shifting in perspectives, Judas demonstrated how people become ever-more radicalized. Multiple characters who began as frustrated-but-relatively-passive idealists turned into killers and outright revolutionaries by the end. Based on this film, I gather the Black Panther Party started in retaliation to institutionalized racism– then the government violently cracked down on them– then the Black Panthers grew angrier and resorted to more extreme tactics– then the government came at them harder (and justified their response to be in the public’s best interest)– then the Black Panthers became even angrier– and on the cycle went.
Judas and the Black Messiah is the most detailed depiction of the Black Panthers I’ve seen yet. It was most educational. Growing up, I was taught through osmosis that the Black Panthers were largely a bad phenomenon; that they were a militant group of extremists who damaged their own cause in the public eye through use of violence (while other Civil Rights advocates could remain peaceful through their anger). And that depiction, as Obi-Wan Kenobi might argue, may be true from a certain point of view. But it’s far from the whole story.
Whether you agree with the BPP’s tactics or not, it’s important to see another side to history– one not commonly covered. I am not a revolutionary, nor am I likely to be one. Still– I desire to learn and understand the revolutionary mindset. What drives people to commit violence? Why would someone give up their chance at a “normal” life– or even their lives period– for a cause? Of course such answers vary, but the root cause seems to be anger. Some are angry at oppression; some are angry at injustice; some are angry in general and just need a target. But no matter the reason, enough anger tends to result in violence, no matter where you are in the world.
I don’t condone violence for any reason, though I understand why some resort to it, but Judas and the Black Messiah made me pause to wonder: what’s the government’s excuse? Revolutions begin with anger and a desire to change the status-quo, and they’re usually in opposition to a greater force. And, lacking the power to make change through official channels, revolutionaries may force said change through violence. I can full-well see why a government would like to stop revolutions: could be a genuine desire to stop innocents from getting hurt, or just to consolidate their own power. But I stop believing they’re the “good guys” or “wronged parties” when they choose to meet violence with more violence. These people who wield FAR more power than desperate revolutionaries can’t claim the moral high ground when they’re willing to leverage their might in despicable ways. Those citizens who fight their leaders feel they’ve exhausted all other means to make peace; a government has every means yet still chooses to wage war on its own people.
I’m getting heavy… Let’s dial back and talk about some of the characters/ performances. Daniel Kaluuya was fantastic in the role of Fred Hampton, imbuing the character with a magnetic charm. His performance maintained gravitas and truly felt like a leader. I can easily see why so many people (from a variety of backgrounds) would have chosen to follow this guy if he was anything like his portrayal in this film.
Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (portrayed by Dominique Fishback) was a quiet but integral character. She is the background force behind Fred Hampton, helping to flesh out his character. Without her, Hampton might not have progressed from tactless idealist to well-spoken figurehead. Johnson’s character also serves to ground Hampton and remind him that there’s more aspects to life than his fight against injustice (like love and contentedness). I wish she’d gotten more to do for herself but the character served her function in the story well. Her highlight was a scene which questioned her continued devotion to the Black Panther Party. It posed a great hypothetical: what things are more important to a revolutionary than their ideals? For some people the cause is everything; for others, there are even higher callings.
Before I wrap up, I’ve gotta admit that I didn’t understand the title at first… I’m slow, OK? I wrote my notes for this review while walking out of the theater and I was suddenly like “Ohhhhh. So that’s what it means…” I hope you get it sooner than I did. Shaka King (the director) put together a solid all-around film. I’ve never heard of him before, but I’ll gladly watch whatever he comes out with next!
Timely themes, quality film-making, and a fascinating story make Judas and the Black Messiah is a Must See
Might you offer recommendation for other good films set in the Civil Rights era? What did you think of Judas and the Black Messiah? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time,
REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.