Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

Challenging and incendiary work providing much-needed perspective into the Black Panther Party (BPP) and one of its most charismatic leaders. While also brutally depicting the all-out war the FBI waged on its own Black citizens who sought progress and peace in their communities by way of a true harmonious unity in the form of thunderous words and communal actions.

In the late 60s, petty criminal turned FBI informant William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is tasked with infiltrating the Illinois Black Panther Party as a part of the agency's notorious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to undermine radical organizations. After joining the Illinois BPP and rising to be on the Security detail for their Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) O'Neal provides vital information on the organization's inner workings to his FBI handler (Jesse Plemons). At the same time, he begins to see exactly why the FBI and specifically its paranoid Director J. Edgar Hoover (A ghoulishly made-up Martin Sheen) are afraid of someone like Hampton gaining a national profile. The young man can be the bridge between so many different races, gangs, and classes bringing a true unified front against the corrupt white establishment of the USA, in Hoover’s words a Black Messiah.

Shaka King's stunning sophomore feature is a tour-de-force in many aspects from two great dedicated performances in Kaluuya and Stanfield, Sean Bobbitt's gritty 70s style cinematography, and a story that continually ratchets the tension even if the audience knows the actual history of these events. While a curious story decision for some in taking the perspective of the informant we see first hand the stakes that the BPP and other organizations that Hoover's FBI deemed radical were up against. As O'Neal remarks right in the beginning “with a badge it's like the whole army is after you”, and the filmmakers certainly depict the violent war the FBI (along with other Federal and State agencies) waged against the communities and people they were ostensibly supposed to be protecting. These racist and misplaced practices persist to this day when so-called Black Radical community groups are treated as threats to national security when white supremacist groups can storm the Capitol and not have anywhere near the same amount of actions taken against them.

Going beyond all that Kaluuya magnetically steals the show as the wise-beyond-his-years introspective Hampton, conveying the rare uniting power the man had with his words and action within his community and between rival groups. Between the firebrand speeches rallying support for the cause and teaching fellow members about his politics and philosophies, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) is able to reveal another poetic side of Hampton as they grow close to one another. It was his gift of reaching people from all walks of life that also painted a target squarely on him leading to constant surveillance, fraudulent prison sentences, and his brutal murder at the hands of the Chicago police doing the FBI's dirty work. The true tragedy at the heart of Judas and the Black Messiah is that Hampton was not allowed to reach his full potential, we'll never know if he truly could've been the widely accepted empathetic leader Hoover and many others feared of. It infuriatingly is the story of so many Black leaders during this period slain before their time for voicing what needed to be said and taking actions they knew would draw dangerous attention from parties more than willing to silence them for good.

It is up to everyone pushing for racial equality that the words and inspiring legacies left behind by Hampton and many other leaders of the Black Liberation Movement are never allowed to fade out or be relegated into reductive footnotes in both American and world histories. I am a Revolutionary!

Listen to myself and co-hosts on the Script/2/Screen podcast panel review and discuss Judas and the Black Messiah in two parts:
Pt. 1). JBM Review and Discussion

Pt. 2). JBM Discussion and Favorite Scenes

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