A unique biopic, Judas and the Black Messiah is an impressive mixture of humanity and vigor.
This article contains spoilers.
How easy it would have been to make a bog-standard biopic about Fred Hampton’s life.
We all know this kind of biopic. A crave-to-cradle storyline that gives brief portions of screen time to each section of Hampton’s life. Maybe some offhand remark from an adult in his childhood would inspire a passage of his speeches. It would have been comprehensive, tidy, ultimately formulaic. But writer-director Shaka King didn’t take the easy route in creating a cinematic reflection. Not so much a Hampton movie as a political thriller that involves the famous civil rights crusader, King has crafted a captivating feature with Judas and the Black Messiah.
Much like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood or Velvet Goldmine, Judas and the Black Messiah puts its famous historical figure as a supporting figure so that the audience can better understand their impact on the larger world. In this case, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is a critical player in the story of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). After being arrested for stealing a car and impersonating an officer, O’Neal is offered a chance by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to forego a prison sentence. In exchange, he must go undercover as an FBI informant in Hampton’s charter of the Black Panther Party.
From there, O’Neal becomes embroiled in the life of both Hampton and the Black Panther Party; both of which are shown to be starkly different from the FBI’s perception of them. While the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) worry about their daughters dating Black men, Hampton and his comrades are feeding hungry school children and uniting people of all kinds of ideologies from all over Chicago.
Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t just a story about Hampton or O’Neil.
It’s a story about how capitalism forces us to look out for only ourselves and monetary gain. Through Judas, characters with self-serving motives are defined by their adhere to money or wealth. Most notably, O’Neal mentions early on that he saw in Mitchell a father figure to emulate. Mitchell is wealthy, but his lavish home is sterile; and the few glimpses we see of his family life are cold. Mitchell is financially secure, but he got there stepping on the necks of others.
Meanwhile, Hampton, his wife Deborah (Dominique Fishback), and his friends share such compassion for one another, they can light up the dingiest motel room. Their bonds are defined by how they’re always looking out for others. Screenwriters King and Will Berson make this trait of Hampton and the other Black Panthers vividly-realized thanks primarily to Hampton’s mesmerizing rhetoric; which lives up to O’Neal’s comment that Hampton “could sell salt to a slug!”
The script for Judas also conveys the idea that, much like with Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, the selfless bonds between Hampton and his allies are inherently doomed to tragedy in America.
The people who benefit most from capitalism will always crush opposition to it, especially when they’re people of color.
Judas and the Black Messiah has such a weighty script in terms of how it tackles wealth, capitalism, and selflessness. But it also has an intimate side that makes these characters more than just mouthpieces for various ideas about America. King and Berson do an especially great job rendering Hampton as human.
He’s depicted as an orator that’s utterly convincing in being able to stir up a crowd; but in his quiet scenes with Deborah, Hampton show signs of vulnerability that also make him equally convincing as a human being. The same goal is accomplished through moments of levity with his friends, including a joyful post-prison reunion with undercover O’Neal. The most memorable of these touching scenes of human connections involves Hampton, recently released from prison, engaging in a group hug with his comrades. It’s a scene that radiates with warmth; especially since it’s framed as two people hugging before more and more people poignantly join in.
Through emphasizing this and other similar scenes, Shaka King shows Hampton as not just a figure of history but a complex person.
He defines Hampton not only by big speeches but by his quiet conversations with Deborah. He defines O’Neal by his complicated moments alone, not his conversations with either Hampton or Mitchell. This even extends to J. Edgar Hoover, who’s defined not by his public image but by his gleeful racism behind closed doors.
By taking the time to underscore intimate moments, Judas and the Black Messiah thrives as a movie; particularly when it comes to making the horrors inflicted on Hampton and company even more potent. It’s a tremendous feat on its own merits and especially impressive given how often period pieces about Black people tend to solely define these characters by the pain they suffer, not the hugs they receive or the laughs they share.
Judas and the Black Messiah is just as riveting visually as it is thematically.
From the first scene, in which O’Neal poses as an FBI agent to hijack a man’s car, King and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt execute camerawork that places the viewer directly into the action. It stands out on its own, and even more so with the extra context that this is only King’s second movie. He’s primarily had experience with low-key comedies up to this point. With Judas, King comes into his own as a dramatic filmmaker whose work you can’t turn away from.
His directorial chops in the opening scene set the visual tone for the rest of the movie. Clever ways of immersing the viewer into scenes are arranged without lapsing into becoming a distraction. A later scene where O’Neal is forced to hotwire a car under enormous pressure features another great example of camerawork that’s both creative and mesmerizing. The way the placement of the camera in this scene constantly and quietly emphasizes the claustrophobic nature of O’Neal’s environment only heightens the intensity of the predicament.
It’s particularly impressive just how suspenseful this scene and the whole of Judas is given that we know where these real-world characters end up. But in the hands of Shaka King, the fact that you can look up Fred Hampton or William O’Neal on Wikipedia and find out their eventual trajectory vanishes. Judas and the Black Messiah puts viewers right alongside Hampton and company; they’re flesh-and-blood people in the here and now, not detached figures from decades past. The story is told with such a sense of captivating urgency that it grabs your attention no matter how much knowledge you have about the history it’s depicting.
That engrossing nature owes a lot to the murderers’ row of actors assembled in Judas and the Black Messiah. These performers are delivering superb work from top-to-bottom.
Lakeith Stanfield gracefully wrings both frustration and sympathy out of the viewer. I was engrossed with just how well this character’s complex nature was rendered. A scene where he reacts to hearing about the gruesome death of a snitch in another Black Panther chapter alone had me spellbound at Stanfield’s talent. It’s also interesting to see Jesse Plemons in here playing slightly against type. Usually, Plemons is the unnerving anomaly in the cast; like his neighbor in Game Night or even his uniquely detached white supremacist in Breaking Bad. Here, Plemons is portraying a guy whose casual racism is part of the fabric of society. Plemons is just as compelling as ever but it’s fascinating to see him use his talents to play someone who is emblematic of larger societal woes rather than an aberration.
The two standouts of the cast, though, are Dominique Fishback and Daniel Kaluuya. For her part, Fishback is in a role that could have been thankless in a rote biopic. Here, however, Fishback gets plenty of chances to exude a compelling personality. The way she functions as an audience point-of-view character in certain scenes proves brilliant. Plus, she has strong chemistry with Kaluuya, which makes the romance between their characters so engaging.
As for Kaluuya, anyone whose seen his work in Get Out and Widows won’t be surprised that he knocks Hampton out of the park.
Taking a cue from the script, Kaluuya imbues Fred Hampton with a down-to-earth quality that provides a thoughtful contrast to his public persona. A scene in which Hampton comforts the mother of a recently-deceased Black Panther is so quiet but also a great showcase for the kind of trusting aura Kaluuya imbues this role with. Kaluuya’s Hampton doesn’t even have to give a grand speech to capture your attention.
In one of the most touching moments of Judas and the Black Messiah, Hampton returns from prison to his Black Panther headquarters. The place had been recently torched to the ground, but Hampton returns to it rebuilt thanks to everyone from the local neighborhood pitching in on the construction project. Overwhelmed by this gesture, Hampton leans against a wall and emits a soft smile. The police have tried to destroy Hampton and his base, but they’ve both endured.
“Power to the people,” Hampton quietly notes.
“Wherever there’s people, there’s power.”
The importance of people runs rampant through this scene and throughout Judas and the Black Messiah. Through emphasizing this element, Judas becomes a movie that’s far more than just the bog-standard Fred Hampton biopic it could have been. A parable about how America treats people striving for equality. A rage-inciting reflection of how little has changed in America in fifty years when it comes to race. A compelling political thriller. A masterful acting showcase for Kaluuya, Stanfield, Plemons, and Fishback. However you approach Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s outstanding film is something you won’t and shouldn’t stop thinking about.
Judas and the Black Messiah hits theaters February 12.
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Douglas Laman is a freelance writer providing Sundance Film Festival coverage for Offcultured.
Header: Judas and the Black Messiah
(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson)