Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is the story of FBI Informant William O’Neal and his betrayal of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Set in the 1960’s director Shaka King doesn’t feed into the media’s sensationalizing of the Panthers during that time and paints a picture of what the Panthers were building and how the FBI infiltrated the organization.  

The story opens with William aka Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) running scams to steal cars. After getting caught, FBI Agent Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers Bill a deal.  Just like that, Bill is now an informant for the FBI and tasked with getting information on Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

JATBM is a tragic story told through the lens of Bill. The film doesn’t waste time painting Bill as a character that’s out for himself at every turn. From the opening moments he’s a man that’s out for himself. He agrees to be an informant to save himself. When he meets with Agent Mitchell throughout the film, he’s asking for more compensation. Bill wants to take care of Bill and nobody else and he will do whatever is necessary .

Stanfield delivers one of his best performances. He’s a character that’s easy to hate, yet Stanfield gives him layers that allows the audience to humanize him. There is a bit of sadness wrapped in Bill’s betrayal. He’s doing all of this for personal gain, yet it’s slowly eating away at him. Most importantly, Bill is a con man pulling off the biggest con of his life. He’s doing his best to cosplay as a Panther but afraid he’ll get caught at any moment. Towards the end of the film Bill has an altercation with a pimp (played by Lil Rel Howery). It’s a short scene that shows how far Bill has come and how much his conscious is weighing on him.

The biggest presence in the film is Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. He gives an electric performance showcasing Hampton as a man that’s for the people. He’s a community leader and a connector. He’s a family man and someone willing to die for the people. There’s an intensity in Kaluuya’s eyes that conveys just how serious the movement was to so many people involved. One of the best scenes is Kaluuya delivering a beautiful fiery speech after he returns home from prison. It’s one of those scenes that would play at the Academy Awards after his name is announced.

The heart of the film is Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson. She articulates the emotions of people around figures like Hampton. She articulates the reality that comes with loving someone that dedicated to the movement. The thought of brining a child into the world has given her a new perspective of what it means to die for the revolution. She’s also grappling with building a life with someone that’s willing to die. Hampton and Deborah have a few tender moments that remind you how young he was and how he was truly loved by people outside of what the Panthers were doing.

The film does not shy away from how insidious law enforcement agencies were in their efforts to take down the Black Panther Party. They were afraid and willing to do whatever to stop people like Fred Hampton. 

Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t a biopic about Fred Hampton. It’s a story of betrayal and sacrifice told through the lens of an informant. It’s a film that’s as beautiful and empowering as it is sad. For some, it will reinforce skepticism of our law enforcement agencies. For some it will remind them that where there are people, there is power.  And for some it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come and just how far we have left to go. For others, it’s all of that and more.   

Grade: A-