The title of Shaka King’s (produced by Ryan Coogler) new film should tell you almost everything you need to know about the moral compass of his new film. In Christianity, Judas has a very specific significance, he was Christ’s traitor who handed him over to the Roman authorizes for a thirty pieces of silver.
The Judas of Judas and the Black Messiah is the real life figure of William O’Neal. William was a petty car jacket who was bribed by the FBI and members of Chicago law enforcement to infiltrate the Black Panthers to provide information about their inner workings in the 1960s.
The FBI at the time, so claims the film, was specifically worried about the activities of the Black Panthers and believed they were a hotbed of domestic terrorism that could galvanize the New Left, anti-war activists, socialists and Civil Rights leaders together in a shared liberation movement that could topple the US government.
In retaliation, the FBI uses William to gain a deeper understanding of the movement and slowly begins to plot against the movement’s young leader Fred Hampton who the government fears could eventually become a dangerous revolutionary leader.
Fred is the story’s “Black Messiah”. As the story claims, he was a young radical with the brains and charisma that he foreseeable could’ve made widespread changes to the system if it wasn’t for the fact that the federal government assassinated him while he was sleeping.
The movie has a lot on its mind about Civil Right’s era oppression, racism and radical activism and it’s hard to actually discuss the film in any regard without discussing just how deeply the film’s vision of them edifies the Black Nationalist cause.
Certainly there are plenty of good elements to Black self determination movements and much of the actions of Chicago law enforcement, as presented, are completely unforgivable and evil. Much of this feel artificial though.
As Armund White writes, the film is more or less dressing up modern grievances in a historical context to satisfy current anxieties over racism:
“To imply that the Black Panthers’ failed revolution is what’s needed today is, in fact, capitulation to the most heinous, exploitive politics of the moment.”
It’s not like the federal government didn’t have genuine reasons to be concerned about the Black Panthers.
They have committed more than their fair share of murders, assaults, occupations and public intimidations, and have tied their movement so deeply to Marxist ideology, that there are plenty of means by which to reasonably criticize them.
Of course in 2021, Marxism and Anti-Racism, properly understood, are the new state religions so I can’t imagine this film getting much of a nuanced analysis out a film that’s designed to galvanize people into revolutionary action.
Just as one ought to condemn the wrongful death of Fred Hampton at the hands of the cops, one ought to similarly consider just how morally one dimensional a story like Judas and the Black Messiah is (Least we forget, the great Black Nationalist Malcolm X was murdered by other black nationalists for his insufficient loyalty to the cause).
Make no mistake, the film is a conversion story. It’s the story of a Judas figure slowly coming to terms with the fact that he’s ignorant to the cause of black oppression, chooses the wrong path and eventually commits suicide out of guilt.
By painting Fred Hampton as a “Black Messiah”, it’s sacralizing everything he stood for. In so far as he stood for fighting racism and poverty, that’s wonderful! In so far as it lionizing Black Nationalist revolution, one could describe his ideas as problematic.
Admittedly that’s not necessarily fair to the film itself just to focus a review on this surrounding moral preconceptions rather than its strengths and weaknesses as a story.
By itself, Judas and the Black Messiah is a spectacularly well made film. Shaka King is in no way a novice with nearly a decade of filmmaking experience under his belt but what he presents in the film is gorgeous work.
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield both show up and deliver with excellent performances. Both of these actors have been on fire in recent years as their careers have completely taken off and this film is no different. It makes for a quieter, performance based drama that highlights their skills in less showy fashion that fills like Get Out or Sorry to Bother You.
Kaluuya is given a simmering yet jovial energy as the teenage radical Fred Hampton. You GET why this kid is dangerous and could become a revolutionary Christfigure by means of his ability to command a room and philosophize about the inequalities of the world.
Similarly, Stanfield does excellent work as the film’s nominal protagonist, playing a character who initially has no pretensions to caring about racism or racial politics and yet finds himself drawn into Hampton’s order and slowly radicalized to the point of reluctance and suicidal regret.
Just as with similarly themed films like Blackkklasnman or Sorry to Bother You, your engagement with the film will vary depending on how deeply you’re willing to defer to the film’s revolutionary aims. The story seethes with rage and doesn’t dramatize its villains as anything but paranoid racists. It takes it for granted that the world is a dystopian nightmare, rotten to the core and oppressive to entire groups of people.
Certainly if you already agree with those opinions though, what more is a film like this than a well shot session of preaching to the choir?