Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★½

Have you ever seen multiple homeless people in the streets on your way to the mall and felt nothing but sympathy yet still had the clear conscience to spend hundreds of dollars on frivolous goods when you arrived? 

Judas and the Black Messiah is about that feeling. Far less outwardly militant and fiery than one might expect from a film about the Black Panther Party, Shaka King’s sophomore feature about the assassination of Illinois Chapter Chairman, Fred Hampton by FBI-mole Bill O’Neal, tells a deeply humanistic story about American power struggles, how ordinary people perceive them and how difficult it is to convince someone they’ll benefit from taking a stand. 

The religious allegory of the film’s title isn’t just an allusion to the betrayal at the story’s core. It’s a story about the power of belief in something and how we all struggle with it. Whether it’s J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI seeking to maintain a system that keeps them in power or Hampton and the Panthers seeking to foster a community, the common challenge they all face is in making people believe that picking a side is worth it. How is it worth it for people who benefit from current American institutions to take a stand so everyone else does too? How is risking your life for a cause worth it when falling in line is so much less dangerous? A messiah’s role in society is to persuade people into believing it is, and that is what made Hampton dangerous to the FBI. The film shows how black power isn’t just a threat to white power, it’s a threat to the established system. The Black Panthers weren’t just fighting for equal rights, they wanted to radically alter how American society functions. And THAT is what makes so many black leaders and socialist movements a threat in the eyes of the establishment, because if a messiah like Hampton comes along to show enough people of every color how little they’re actually benefiting from this system, the people at the top will lose their institutional power. Make no mistake by my insistence that the film is more complex than a call to arms, Judas and the Black Messiah designates clear heroes and villains. J. Edgar Hoover is finally portrayed as the ghoulish monster he was and Fred Hampton’s ability to reach out and unite people is rightfully portrayed as noble and heroic. But what makes the film so complex is that it isn’t a story about good vs. evil, it’s a story about how people like you and I fit in to that conflict. 

Enter: Bill O’Neal, the “Judas” of this story. It’s easy to write O’Neal off as a selfish opportunist who sacrificed others for his benefit. But Shaka King does not want you to watch it and not see yourself in him. When the film ended, a friend I saw it with actually questioned me for saying I had sympathy for O’Neal and asked how I could possibly “have sympathy for a rat who sold out his people”, and my answer was that I’m truly unsure of whether or not I wouldn’t do the same. We all like to think we’d run in to the burning building. It’s so easy to talk about being willing to lay down your life for a cause and fight for what’s right no matter what...when you’re in a position to choose not to. But when the moment comes, how many of us would actually make that sacrifice? How many of us would actually choose to die with a clear conscience than to keep living and reap the rewards in return for selling out our friends? I take no pleasure in saying I don’t know if I’d be strong enough, and I hope I never have to find out. But it is because of that murkiness surrounding the survivalist side of human nature that I simply can’t bring myself to hate O’Neal for choosing self-preservation. The film shows how conflicted he was between in wanting to believe in the Panther’s ideologies and simultaneously benefitting from the capitalistic system they opposed. It shows how much easier it is for black people and other POC in America to believe in causes like this because most of them don’t currently stand to benefit from the current systems. But the second one of them does, like O’Neal, you can’t possibly fault them for the temptation. Within Christian texts, Judas is not meant to be hated for his actions. His role in that story is to represent that humans are, and will always be, inherently flawed even in the face of a messiah. Judas shows how hard it is to believe in something you’ll gain nothing from and it cannot be denied that the events of the film would have occurred regardless of O’Neal’s presence in them and he merely made the choice to get something out of it even if it leaves him a broken, haunted man for the rest of his life. But the moral of that Biblical parable, was in how Christ could acknowledge that Judas made a bad choice and still understand why he did it. The film seeks not to convey a story about how things go wrong in the fight for change, but to make you think long and hard about whether or not you’d actually be capable of seeing it through to the end. 

Directed with a stunningly humanist perspective and brought to life with visceral, gritty cinematography and production design, Judas and the Black Messiah is a work of prestigious Hollywood filmmaking that never loses sight of telling a very necessary and worthwhile story. And I’d of course be remiss to mention the stunning, aching pathos that Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya bring to the title roles, delivering the kind of dominating performances that cement them amongst the finest actors of their generation. It’s not without some pacing issues but Judas and the Black Messiah is an undeniable masterpiece of uniquely American storytelling. It’s not saying you’re a bad person for still going to the mall after seeing the homeless. It’s just asking you to be honest about what you’re actually willing to do for them. Whether you feel helpless, angry or guilty, don’t look for scapegoats, such as in the forms of oppressed minorities like the FBI did. Just remember:

“I don’t hate anybody. I just hate that feeling” - Dave Chappelle

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