Written by: Joe Lollo; student reporter
My knowledge of the Black Panther Party has always been fairly limited—it wasn’t exactly a part of my high school history curriculum. So when I took a class on counterculture during my time at UWB, I jumped at the chance to read more about them. The Huey P. Newton Reader was my first introduction to the real BPP: it was like opening my eyes to a part of history that had been forgotten or perhaps covered up. I suspect that, in some ways, Judas and the Black Messiah has the potential to be for others what The Huey P. Newton Reader was for me.
The film, directed by Shaka King and written by him and Will Berson, follows Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who rises through the ranks of the Chicago Black Panther Party and ultimately aids in the state-sanctioned assassination of its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
The story follows a biopic format, commencing by throwing O’Neal straight into the hands of FBI special agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) and immediately showing off Hampton’s charisma and leadership as chairman, as well as his more personal side with his partner, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback).
I think the film itself is aware of the tale it’s presenting the audience: that of an anti-capitalist revolutionary being murdered out of a fear that he could bring about real change in America. The first time we see Hampton it’s in a news clip at an FBI briefing—agents watch as Kaluuya delivers a variation of one of Fred’s well-known quotes: “We don’t fight fire with fire, we fight fire with water. We don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We ain’t gonna fight capitalism with Black capitalism, we’re gonna fight capitalism with socialism.”
Just days before watching Judas, I saw a tweet honoring Hampton with this quote, only the last sentence was omitted. This movie clearly wants to showcase aspects of Hampton and the BPP most might not be aware of: how they provided community aid through their survival programs, how they united different social groups to form a working-class coalition, how they subscribed to a Marxist-Leninist political viewpoint. (Chairman Mao even gets a shoutout!)
Most of those historical facets slide away as the plot progresses, however, as this film is ultimately more of a character-focused drama that emphasizes the personal struggles of Hampton and O’Neal, Mitchell and Johnson being third wheels every now and again. Excellent cinematography and directorial work emphasize these odysseys, with Stanfield often getting boxed in by the frame while Kaluuya can barely be contained by it—especially when delivering one of Hampton’s heart-pounding speeches.
However, their journeys never seem to cross paths, even when the characters get in each other’s way; Hampton’s internal dialogue on whether it’s worthwhile to die for a cause you believe in never intersected with O’Neal’s growing insecurities about selling out to Hoover. Cutting out either character’s individual scenes would probably still yield a complete story.
This problem of characterization is only compounded by the acting choices made here. While Kaluuya and Stanfield both give everything they’ve got, a certain energy is lost when you realize the characters they’re portraying are over 10 years younger than themselves. Hampton wasn’t much older than I am when he was killed, but you wouldn’t know that without some text after the finale detailing the aftermath.
Judas is also eager to portray O’Neal’s eagerness to accept cash rewards for his services to the FBI while quickly moving past the fact that he was only 17 at the time—not even out of high school. (Also, after Stanfield’s amazing performances in Knives Out and Sorry to Bother You, I have a hard time seeing him as the kid he’s supposed to be here).
Still, there is a spellbinding quality to this movie. Perhaps because you know where it’s going in the end, and it hurts because you know what’s happening, but you just can’t look away. While other biopics often suffer from plot beats just happening without any motivation to keep the story’s momentum going, Judas and the Black Messiah creates a hurricane that sweeps you off your feet and only gives you brief moments in the calm of the storm.
When even moments of celebration are undercut by tragedy, this film argues the only place where respite is truly found are with the people around you—making their survival the utmost priority. While I think Judas could be a better historical tribute to the Black Panthers, it captures the desperation and vigor of their fight perfectly.