The past few years in American life have been filled with turmoil, tension, and protests against racism that are both criticized and praised. For some, there exists a notion that America today feels the most like the turbulent 1960s than it has since that immeasurably significant time.
Perhaps that’s why the last couple of years have brought us so many films set in the 1960s, and focusing particularly on individual aspects of the fight for racial justice. Judas and the Black Messiah, now streaming on HBOMAX and airing in some theaters, falls within this lineage.
Almost like an inverse of BlackKklansman, this film tells the true story of William (Bill) O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a black man who was caught stealing cars in 1968 and was offered either 6.5 years in jail or money, a free car, and “freedom” in exchange for spying on Chicago’s Black Panthers. The FBI at the time had its sights set on Fred Hampton, the party’s chairman, also referred to by the feds as the “Black Messiah.” (Get the title now?)
The film inspires questions: was Bill a bad person, or was he caught in a system that would have never allowed him to be free regardless? What did he truly believe? Why did he do what he did?
And there are no answers. Director Shaka King shows but does not tell. Roiling jazz music and (literally) moving cinematography contribute to a constant sense of unrest as Bill makes decisions anew every day, pressured by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who himself seems unsure at times about whether what they’re doing is right.
And when we aren’t watching this conspiracy coming together day by day, decision by decision, we are watching the inspirational, charismatic Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) preaching power to the people, building a Rainbow Coalition of disenfranchised people of multiple races, and stating over and over again that he knows he will one day give his life to this cause. His level of selflessness comes into question repeatedly, as his fellow Panthers – including Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), the mother of his child – realize that this selflessness means that he will not allow himself to be saved, and thus will not be with them for long.
Judas and the Black Messiah illustrates a set of beliefs through the story, of course, but it also allows for quite a bit of ambivalence. The creators show us the Panthers’ free breakfast program and revolutionary ideals, and they also show Panthers shooting police. FBI agent Roy Mitchell compares the Panthers to the KKK, citing them both as “sow[ing] hatred and inspir[ing] terror.” For some, this may seem an apt comparison, though it ignores the role of history and power dynamics of the present. But the film begins with footage of Malcolm X stating, “Those are not riots, they are rebellions. People are rebelling because of conditions and not because of individuals.”
While creators have certainly made space for viewers to make their own decisions about this complicated group in our nation’s history, their own beliefs are clearly communicated. This balance between ambivalence, shown through violence and through Bill’s character, and the message that these measures were necessary, communicated through Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and the communities that gathered around them, is skillfully achieved and reaps immense benefits in terms of viewers’ freedom to grapple with the situation for themselves.
Overall, the story is riveting. It seamlessly interweaves deeply personal relationships and decisions with systems that are bigger than all of us, showing how, for people disenfranchised by those systems, the lines between are blurrier for those at the bottom. Viewers are in suspense through the final moments, and will certainly leave the theater (or the living room) with lasting questions about race, revolution, and American history.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re in it for the suspense, the relationships, the ideologies, or the history, Judas and the Black Messiah will not disappoint. This movie delivers entertainment, education, and an emotional ride that you’ll be glad you took.