Judas and the Black Messiah: An insightful and essential character study

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Shaka King’s latest film, Judas and the Black Messiah, opens with a montage of archival footage from the late 60s. In it, a Black Panther proclaims to the camera “Those are not riots. Those are rebellions. People are rebelling because of conditions and not because of individuals. No individual creates a rebellion. It’s created out of the conditions.”, words which certainly ring true to this day.

King’s grippingly tense drama offers an insightful exploration of the politics of race, power, and revolution through its character study of the Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), and the FBI informant tasked with infiltrating his inner circle (LaKeith Stanfield). The story opens with Stanfield’s petty thief, Bill O’Neal, in his Humphrey Bogart costume and homemade FBI badge as he pretends to arrest a man so he can steal his car. Once caught, the FBI asks why the disguise? He simply responds, “A badge is scarier than a gun.”

O’Neal is forced to choose between infiltrating the Black Panthers and prison, so the initially apolitical O’Neal chooses the former. Fred Hampton is a fascinating figure. Played to perfection by Kaluuya, he isn’t the anarchic boogeyman that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover makes him out to be. He’s an astonishing orator, an incredibly learned intellectual, and a committed revolutionary. And at the time of his death, he was only 21.

Much of the film is spent following Hampton as he attempts to assemble a multiracial rainbow coalition to reduce poverty and keep people safe from the police. Hampton’s murder was infamously orchestrated by the FBI and the police. And why? According to Hoover, to “prevent the rise of a black messiah” who could unite the communist, anti-war, and New Left movements. The true story behind the film is certainly one that needs to be told. And Kaluuya delivers Hampton’s brilliant speeches with such gravitas and skill that he has certainly earned every inch of his Golden Globe for the film.

The constant dread faced by O’Neal keeps the tension sky high throughout, and his conflicted loyalties and emotional turmoil make for a gut-wrenching watch. The film examines everything including revolution, race, policing, intersectionality, class, performative activism, and personal loyalty with an insight that makes it essential viewing. Dominique Fishback also gives a stellar performance as Hampton’s fiancée, in addition to Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen appearing as part of the FBI.

With the Oscars set to take place on April 25th, Judas and the Black Messiah has received six well-earned nominations including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Song, and two for Best Supporting Actor. But unfortunately, Dominique Fishback and Shaka King seem to have been criminally overlooked when it comes to awards season. Rather confusingly, Stanfield has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor (alongside Kaluuya) instead of Best Lead Actor, but regardless of the category mishap, hopefully, one of them will be able to take home the golden statue.

Judas and the Black Messiah is currently available on video-on-demand.

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