Judas and the Black messiah has been set up as one of the must-see movies of the year, starring two very recognisable lead Black actors and Get Out stars, Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, which in itself does seem to promise major intrigue in the way of plot progression and acting performance.
The film is based around the events of the Chicago Black Panther Party’s infiltration in the 1960s by FBI informant William O ‘Neal (Stanfield), placed in the party to take down their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), coined by the FBI as the ‘Black Messiah’.
The film starts with LaKeith’s character, William O’Neal, being interview for what we later realise is the’ Eyes on the Prize II: America at a Racial Crossroads 1965-85 documentary that was released in 1990. This retrospective narrative frame allows O’Neal to set the backdrop of revolution, the Civil Rights, Black rights and Police Brutality that permeates the film right from the very beginning.
But one of the most significant scenes in the film, for me, is the very first scene after the exposition. We meet O’Neal for the first time as a thief posing as an FBI agent, attempting to brutalise and steal from a group of innocent fellow African-Americans. When finally arrested, he pays for this crime by becoming an FBI informant of Black Panthers to keep himself out of prison.
The first thing FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), asks O’Neal before recruiting him is, “how did you feel about the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X”. O’Neals response is that he didn’t really think about it: and while this all may seem like more exposition, it poignantly sets the tones for all the themes and events that are to follow and establishes a key part of O’Neal’s character that governs every action he carries out later: he doesn’t care about anyone but himself- and nothing, not even the civil rights of Black people-matters more than his own self-interest. And this fact is so important because the overarching theme in this film is unity. Not violence. Not fighting back with guns and grenades. But supporting the community as a whole, and the way the film positions these two very powerful but opposing forces, self-interest and self-sacrifice, is where I think the secret power of the film lies.
My initial reaction after watching it was that it was pandering. In his fight against police brutality and systematic, institutionalised racism, Fred Hampton seeks to recruit/bring together the hard done by in not only the Black community, but the lower economic White and Puerto Rican communities as well, and with a mostly slow-moving 3rd quarter of the film, it seemed like the only reason the film was getting so much praise was that it didn’t focus solely on justice for Black people.
But as you watch on, you realise that the appearance of the other races isn’t to spotlight the theme of amicable interracial relations but to debunk the pervading expectations of righteous warfare that many of us would have had going into this film. Because Shaka King makes it clear that’s not all the Black Panthers were about.
Throughout the film, you get shown that Fred’s vision of political activism is far less about picking up arms and more about providing free food, free education, free clinics and supporting the community. And artfully, the film often cuts between scenes of Hampton preaching this message of togetherness, and the irate FBI denouncing him, which plays on the very real idea that, really, it wasn’t the apparent acts of terror that made Hampton the biggest security threat to America at the time, but his drive to provide for the community and be unified as a people with a voice.
And this is what makes Fred’s character the Black Messiah, willing to sacrifice himself for his peoples freedom, to O’ Neal’s Judas, who is willing to sell out, kill off, and betray his own people for 30 pieces of silver-or in this case, a few dollar notes.
And the two play their roles exceptionally well. Stanfield (in my opinion) has a very natural duality to his appearance and acting style, which comes through in all of his work and which makes his performance seem so genuine. Fred’s character is no different, and Daniel brings the same fear, passion and believability to his role as Fred as he has done with all of his other roles, right down to his oratory, which, when compared to a clip of the real Fred Hampton at the end of the movie, sounds just like him.So the casting does the film justice.
The other thing I really loved about this film, small detail though it may be, is the way it depicts Black women. There is no single type of Black woman in this film. The three most prominent Black female characters are Deborah Johnson (Dominque Fishback), Judy Harmon (Dominique Thorn), and Mrs Winters (Alysia Joy Powell), and they are all in various roles.
They are strong, defiant and militant like Judy Harmon. They are soft, loving and maternal like Mrs Winters, and they are a little bit of both, like Deborah Johnson. They support each other, support the men and take charge where necessary. It was a nice change from the monolithic stock characters of Black women that we are so used to seeing in the media.
And I think these depictions aid the overall message of unity between Black people and people in general. It’s the idea of acceptance and unity that makes O’ Neal do the FBI’s bidding just as it is his need to be accepted that makes him feel guilt for tearing down the party. And then its O’Neal’s lack of unity that finishes them. There is a point about halfway through the film where Fred teases his listeners by asking, “what’s our most lethal weapon? Is it guns?…. rocket launchers? It’s the people”, and that’s what needs to be taken away from this.
Especially today where there seems to be a protest every other week, causes could easily be strengthened by unification, but all too often fall apart because of performative activism, disagreement within groups and people being far too concerned with their own welfare and their own purses, to view the bigger picture.
The film doesn’t cover a massive period. It’s a snapshot of a single period in recent history that can teach us a lot. And the stream of visuals; powerful, strikingly dressed protestors, innocent people being torn from their beds, extreme gun violence, and police brutality against men and women, isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it really hammers home why all of these themes are so important and why it’s necessary to understand the Black Panther group as an activist group, not just a military faction. Because many of these scenes are all too familiar to us in 2021. And the film makes it abundantly clear what we are doing wrong in our current fight for freedom – sometimes, now as then, discussion, loud cultural displays and protests are moot, and action and authority are what’s really needed. And certain changes can only be achieved if we are all looking out for each other and the cause as a whole, not just our own egos or wallets.
“Political power doesn’t flow through the sleeve of a Dashiki.”
“Don’t gimme no five a dime costume (…) of whatever you Think the mother lard looks like-gimme a gun.”
“Anywhere there’s people- there’s power.”
“How we win this war? what our most lethal weapon? (…) the people. There’s power in numbers.”