The 400-Word Review: Judas and the Black Messiah
By Sean Collier
February 12, 2021
In 2008, on the day of Barack Obama’s election, I saw an incendiary Facebook post about the Black Panthers. An unhinged commenter was making the false claim that groups of Panthers were intimidating voters outside of urban polling places. (Facebook would become progressively worse. This was an early sign.)
Never mind that this was clearly untrue (even in an era when we didn’t know how bad election misinformation could get). What struck me was how antiquated the complaint was. This was 2008; while there were still groups tied to the historic Black Panthers, that body hadn’t been prominent for decades — since the time depicted in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
The lesson, to me, in that Facebook post was one of cultural power. No matter how long it had been since the Black Panthers were in the news, they still had the power to provoke outrage in certain circles. “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a strong historical drama from director Shaka King, reclaims and recontextualizes that legacy.
It does so, quite obviously, at a moment where the demonization of social-justice organizations is freshly relevant.
The film’s nominal protagonist is William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who in the late 1960s was coerced into serving as an informant within the Illinois Black Panthers to avoid a jail term. The movie’s subject, though, is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the charismatic activist and leading Panther who was murdered during a 1969 police raid.
It’s a portrait of Hampton by way of O’Neal’s story — an interesting tactic, and a screenwriting choice that makes for a more compelling film than a straight Hampton biopic might. O’Neal’s plight, and repeated scenes where he interacts with his condescending Bureau handler (Jesse Plemons), are not nearly as interesting as Hampton’s character and journey, particularly given Kaluuya’s masterful performance.
The distance from Hampton in the narrative is intriguing, though, defining the figure less than a stock biography would. It’s no accident that the first word in the film’s title is “Judas” — this is O’Neal’s story in the way that the classic musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” belongs to Judas.
In any case, it’s good to see the power of awards-season prestige used to reclaim a once-maligned group. “Judas and the Black Messiah” might still elicit social-media grumblings by the exact wrong type of people, but more importantly, it has the potential to correct the historic record for younger viewers.
My Rating: 8/10
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is streaming on HBO Max.