Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

Catholic catechism teaches there is no greater betrayal than that of Judas, who sold out his friend and messiah, leading to Jesus Christ’s grisly murder at the hands of his enemies. Bible stories detail the sins, but not the emotional journey that led to this betrayal. It’s a cautionary tale robbed of context, leaving us to wonder how Judas could have made this horrid choice. Religious films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus Christ Superstar explored this taboo terrain, urging audiences to understand how such betrayal was born. Now, Judas and The Black Messiah walks in the footsteps of such cinema, unveiling not only the true story of Black Panthers chairman Fred Hampton, but also the cowardly comrade who got him killed. 

Directed by Shaka King, Judas and The Black Messiah begins with William “Bill” O’Neal, who was a Black Panthers security captain/FBI informant. By day, Bill would help out at the Panthers’ free lunch programs, aid in community outreach to provide social services and medical care, and attend rallies. By night, he’d back Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter, as he strode into unwelcomed territories, seeking allies for his Rainbow Coalition. While Fred and his comrades planned to build a better community for the poor of 1960s Chicago, Bill would sneak off to meet with his handler, a thin-smiled white agent, who promised him silver and salvation. However, if you know your Bible, you know Bill will only get the former. 

LaKeith Stanfield stars as Bill, channeling the electric energy he’s shown in films like Uncut Gems and Sorry To Bother You. Introduced in the midst of a wonky carjacking scheme, he boasts a youthful bounce to his step, a frightened glint in his eye as he runs into trouble. With such subtle physical cues, Stanfield suggests how damn young O’Neal was when the Feds brought him in. He was just 17 when an agent threatened him with a six-year stint in prison unless he informed on the Black Panthers. 

Jesse Plemons brings a folksy warmth, edged with smugness to the role of Agent Roy Mitchell. While FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) gives seething, racist speeches about the dangers of the Black Panthers, Mitchell speaks calmly. His civility sugar coats outlandish declarations that compare the Panthers to the Ku Klux Klan. A spoonful of sugar helps the propaganda go down, as does inviting Bill to fancy restaurants and Roy’s spacious suburban home. Each site is a none-too-subtle promise of what the boy could win into if he plays his cards right in this FBI game. 

The screenplay by King and Will Berson contrasts these luxuries against the battered brick buildings, cramped apartments, and glaring poverty that Bill finds on his block. However, the deception of this promise is stripped away when Bill is. When only white FBI agents are onscreen, the anti-Black racism is loud, proud, and dangerous, exposing the ruse that Bill has naively bought into. Such scenes encourage us to sympathy, showing us what Bill can’t know. But then again, maybe he should. After all, he’s got a front row seat to Fred’s speeches, where the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are called out as political assassinations, before Fred predicts his own doom. Judas And The Black Messiah does not let O’Neal off the hook, exposing the depths of his betrayal. Still, it uses his story to expose the lies and the institutional racism that damned him. Beyond that, the film also reminds us what was stolen.  

Fred Hampton terrified the white capitalist establishment, because he spoke openly of revolution and socialism, and because he was able to rally people across racial divides to the cause. But he was more than a revolutionary, a Black Panther, a great orator, and a martyr. Like the most controversial messiah movies, Judas and The Black Messiah reminds us he was a man in love. 

Daniel Kaluuya is a mesmerizing force as Fred. As seen in Widows, he carries a casual confidence that draws your eye to him, even as he’s sitting still. Then, Fred stands and delivers a speech that is written in fireworks. He is a poet of the political, throwing down visual language, calling out to the crowd for response, and laying out complicated concepts in easy-to-chew bites, while leaving his listeners with heartier bits to gnaw on. The script for Judas and The Black Messiah crackles with lingo from the ’60s, like “dig” and “right on.” The scribes integrate them smoothly, so they never feel like a stodgy pose. Then, the acclaimed English actor makes it his own, delivering a flawless American accent, even as he rapid-fires patter like a tent preacher on a roll. These will likely be the scenes that play in the nominees montages for the award shows that Kaluuya has already scored nods for, because these are the showy moments beloved by trailer-cutters. Yet it’s the private moments that deepen all of these public displays of bravery and rebellion. 

The surprise heart of Judas and the Black Messiah is the love story between Fred and Black Panthers speechwriter Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). When the crowds have gone home and the roar of cheers has quieted, these two find each other in flirtations and breathy talk of poetry and passion. He is strong yet soft, and so is she. Kaluuya finds his match in Fishback, who can hold his penetrating gaze with steady and ardent reply. Their banter is not the whiz-bang kind of rom-coms. It’s more grounded and vulnerable, yet no less dazzling. The love between them is found in the comfortable tumble of their conversation, and in how his big, muscled hand strokes her awaiting flesh, softly and slowly. And while this is his movie, her character is not defined by scenes with him. Moments with the other Panthers give a greater shape to Deborah and her struggle as a cisgender Black woman in the revolution. All this leads to discussion over a journal entry that might be the movie’s finest moment because of its splendor in their love and chemistry. Though there are so many fine moments, it’s hard to choose. 

Simply put, the story choices of Judas and The Black Messiah are sensational and sophisticated. The cast proves superb as they explore the rich inner lives of these historical figures. To this, King brings a confident director’s hand. An excellent sound design allows voices to boom and echo in community halls, throwing us into the thick of the scene and the swoon of Hampton’s oration. A sharply scarce score by composers Craig Harris and Mark Isham gives us horns that whine, strings that snarl, and hand-beaten drums that prickle at our nerves. Often, this throws us into the anxiety-ridden mindset of Bill, who fears both sides of his double-cross. Meanwhile, a cool yet rich color palette paints 1968 Chicago as a place beautiful but cold, dangerous. Through all this, we are invited into the world of Fred and Bill, and like them we cannot escape a final act that is fittingly heartbreaking. 

In the end, Judas and the Black Messiah is about much more than its titular figures. King and his cast not only bring to life our not-so-distant and still achingly relevant past, but also the people who risked all they had for a future better than this. Carefully composed moments define the members of the Panthers as well as their devotion to community. As such, the film is a glorious tribute not only to their bravery and passion, but also to the poetry of revolution, where words and action collide to create something powerful and profound that cannot die. 

A

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is in theaters and on HBO Max this Friday.

Kristy Puchko is a New York-based film critic whose work has appeared on Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Vulture, and Pajiba. Born in a small Pennsylvania town known for flooding (and being the filming location of 'Slap Shot'), Kristy showed a deep love of cinema from an early age. She earned her B.A. in Film Studies at Macaulay Honors College's Brooklyn branch. Then, she spent some time on Sesame Street (as an intern) before moving into post-production, editing music videos, commercials, and films. From there, Kristy branched out into blogging, and quickly realized her true passion was in writing about film in a way that engaged and challenged audiences. Since then, she's traveled the world on assignment, attended a variety of film festivals, co-hosted movie-focused podcasts, and taught a film criticism course at FIT. But amid all her ventures, she's proud to call Pajiba.com her home, serving as the site's Chief Film Critic and Film Editor.

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