NOC Sundance Review: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

While the details of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus Christ are debated, Judas goes down in history as one of the most infamous traitors — all over 30 pieces of silver. Maybe Judas didn’t like the fact that the people hailed Christ as a “Messiah” — a title the FBI used as code names for Black radical liberators in the 1960s to the late 1970s. One such “Messiah” is the young Black Panther activist and Chicago native Fred Hampton, mercilessly killed thanks to Black a panther Party (BPP) infiltrator and informant William O’Neal, FBI Agent Roy Mitchell, and J. Edgar Hoover.

Directed Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Fred Hampton’s betrayal in great detail. As an activist, Hampton aimed to unite people from all walks of life against systemic oppression. Still, the counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO) FBI death squad stopped all. Can’t have people of color and poor whites thinking they have any power.

William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a thief who impersonates an FBI agent to get away with stealing money and cars. He gets caught and meets federal investigator Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who dangles a 5-7 prison term over his head unless he becomes an informant. His task: infiltrate the Chicago branch of the BPP and get close to their leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). He doesn’t want to go to jail, so he agrees to the mission. Getting close to Hampton proved difficult as his inner circle is protective of him. However, O’Neal’s manipulation skills allow him to penetrate Hampton’s security and he eventually moves up the ranks to become security chief. Now a close confidant of the young leader, O’Neal sees how Hampton unites a community — and begins to questions if this is he wants to go through with.

Hampton with his wife Deborah (Dominique Fishback) were aiming to create a rainbow coalition was on the horizon with poor whites, Hispanic, Black, and Indigenous folks coming together to fight against systemic classism and racism — in addition to healing the community. It’s an ideal that O’Neal begins to identify with. When Hampton goes to prison for reasons made up by the Feds, O’Neal thinks it’s all over — but that’s not enough for Hoover. With lies and gaslighting, the Feds order O’Neal to ramp up the violence and pressure the BPP into a war with the police.

Constructed in 1956, COINTELPRO was a tool used to find and arrest communists. It expanded to include the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party — and anyone who rose to power in and around the civil rights movement acquired the title of “Black Messiah,” an attribute Kaluuya is brilliant at capturing.

Daniel Kaluuya is captivating with his empathic and powerful performance. I wonder what his preparation process was because he is doing some powerful work and is given carte blanche to explore a range of emotions. His chemistry with actress Dominique Fishback leaps off the screen. They have more than chemistry — there is a synergy there. The duo moves as one force, as she’s on equal footing with him and allowed to be vulnerable. However, Lakeith Stanfield doesn’t have that luxury. He’s confined to certain expressions and reactions because of how the film portrays O’Neal. Stanfield is an underrated Hollywood talent, so it’s not that he doesn’t have the range. It’s solely the fault of how the character is written.

Shaka King wants the viewers to know just how low the government will stoop to get their way. He doesn’t employ cheap camera tricks or choppy edits to tell this story. He lets the rawness of the narrative speak for itself. His biggest offense is not drawing a significant focus on BPP as a whole. Also there needed to be more about Hampton via his origin story and how he rose to power in Chicago. We hear about those things in passing, but these are details the audience deserves to see.

Despite that, Judas and the Black Messiah is worth the watch. It’s a film that will piss you off — but that’s by design. The film is a bleak reminder that racism, classism, and corruption still exist within the American government and society at large — and it’s not going away anytime soon. The elite don’t want unification although that’s what they constantly preach. Imagine how influential the people could be if they came together for a common goal? Unfortunately, Fred Hampton and the many lives lost since won’t see that vision come to fruition, but the revolution continues in their honor.

Please read up on COINTELPRO and all the damage it’s caused and the lives it’s destroyed. It’s available on Wikipedia, and the FBI website as many of the case files are now unclassified.

Judas and the Black Messiah will simultaneously open in theaters and stream exclusively on HBO Max beginning February 12.