With regard to director Shaka King’s masterpiece, the aforementioned sentiment goes double for Kaluuya’s fellow cast members Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, and Jesse Plemons. Judas and the Black Messiah follows the life and times, and tragic end, of Fred Hampton (played by Kaluuya), the Black Panther Party Chairman of the Illinois chapter in the late 1960s. Most importantly, the film lays bare the attempts of the FBI to infiltrate and destabilize Hampton’s civil rights campaigns through the aid of petty criminal William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) after applying enough pressure on O’Neal to force him into working as their informant.
Politically motivated assassinations pervade the era of the Civil Rights Movement and well beyond it, and while Judas and the Black Messiah shines a necessary light on the goings on of Fred Hampton and his movement in Illinois, it still adds new fury to the issue of state violence against black and brown communities. Kaluuya’s performance is disciplined, intense and sincerely committed to Hampton’s legacy. Opposite him is LaKeith Stanfield’s gut-wrenching portrayal of petty criminal turned FBI informant, William O’Neal, who upon successfully winning over the trust of the Black Panther Party in Illinois earns, the moniker “Wild Bill.”
The role of black women in the movement that Hampton tends to is invaluable — enter Dominique Fishback, whose portrayal of his fiance Deborah Johnson transforms from an act on screen to a gorgeous rendition of a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. Johnson shoulders the brunt of the blow to the women who defend their community from state violence with inexplicable poise. A writer who teaches Hampton that he is in fact a poet himself, Johnson’s presence sets the tone, the mood, and the overall theme of her engagement with him throughout the entirety of their relationship.
As the film reaches its inevitable crescendo, there is no greater burning than the stoicism Johnson must evoke in the face of horrific tragedy. And yet, there is a love story that often drowns out the cop sirens and police raids, an underlying message of unity that flourishes despite the flames of discriminatory violence. Judas and the Black Messiah tells the tale of a young brother whose life, though cut short, lit the fuse to the revolution.
The other side of this tale is equally tragic and twisted, as it is stoked mostly by FBI activities that force William O’Neal into an inescapable corner. LaKeith Stanfield communicates so clearly how mortified O’Neal is when caught by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) that there’s little wonder why he made a deal with Mitchell to become a counterintelligence operative to avoid felony charges. The nefarious nature of Mitchell’s intentions is heightened by Plemons’ air of seemingly supportive, yet clearly aloof, vibes when interacting with O’Neal in private. Their relationship is strained when O’Neal’s conscious begins to dig its way into his goings on with the Black Panther Party and his loyalties questioned as a result.
With Kaluuya, Fishback, and Stanfield leading the charge, Judas and the Black Messiah is the necessary story, the one about the boy who grew to fight the system and grew too strong as a result. It is an American story, rooted in the oppressions that operate under different names and different institutions today. Above all, this film’s story serves as a reminder to its viewers of the intersectionality of struggle, of love, and of community.
Judas and the Black Messiah makes its way to theaters and on HBO Max on February 12.