Judas and the Black Messiah recounts the real-life saga involving young-and-rising Black Panthers leader, Fred Hampton, operating in Illinois, with his eventual betrayer, William “Bill” O’Neal. The story is framed to juxtapose the infamous biblical betrayal as it wears the hint as explicitly in the title as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The story of an eloquent Black revolutionist killed by the establishment after manipulating a fellow Black man inarguably exudes the #BlackLivesMatter message strongly. It’s a provocative political biopic radiating that couldn’t have been timelier.
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Get Out star, Daniel Kaluuya portrays Hampton in an unholy reunion with co-star, Lakeith Stanfield, who portrays O’Neal. The story by Keith and Kenneth Lucas, written for the screen by Will Berson and the director Shaka King, highlights the lives of the two men prior to the fateful moment that took the life of Hampton after O’Neal tipped the cunning FBI of his whereabouts. Both actors are the diesel that fuels Judas and the Black Messiah from the start to its bitter ending. In the story that focuses on real human characters with real human emotion such as it is, the leading performance sets the bar, and both Kaluuya, as well as Stanfield, have the capability to set the bar soaring high. It’s interesting to learn that the narrative dynamic doesn’t work like Jesse James’ story where he nurtured and bonded with his eventual killer who looked straight up to his idol. The proverbial Judas and the Black Messiah’s stories move in their own direction even when they’re bound to intersect in some pivotal moments.
Judas’s story begins with O’Neal getting arrested by the FBI after a failed impersonation to be an agent. He’s then coerced by FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) working under the supervision of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), to infiltrate the Black Panthers Party and become their informant. Posing as an aggressive Black feller, O’Neal will soon come into the ranks as a trusted man in Hampton’s security system. Soon, the Black Messiah’s story unravels with a legacy of the real-life counterpart. Kaluuya brings Hampton’s fiery and witty persona on-screen convincing enough to start a revolution on his own. “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution,” young Hampton is vocal and eloquent with his words. His words inspire fellow Black brothers and sisters while his political moves help unite different groups fighting the same war. This is the same Hampton that voluntarily and bravely assisted Bobby Seale in his Chicago 7 trials (as depicted in The Trial of the Chicago 7). His legacy is a great one and the actor portraying him ensures that he brings in eloquence in every speech and charm in every on-screen stand-off.
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King treats this political drama like an action-crime story where every first impression can erupt into a chaotic war. It’s almost always intense at the beginning of every scene as the characters step into the room. Sometimes it will come to Hampton with his chaotic charisma that immediately radiates the room, giving the hint if people will side with him or cross with him at the same time. Some other time, it’s O’Neal exuding similar intensity when he enters the screen—whether his ill-induced scheme comes into light or lurks successfully underneath. The story is presented like a piece of narrative relayed by O’Neal to his manipulative FBI operators. There seems to be doubt from the within (this will be represented with how the camera focuses on O’Neal’s guilty gaze or Hampton’s placidness) that gets the Judas into a series of dilemmatic moments for whether he’s trusting his freedom to white folks or ratting out his fellow Black strugglers. That’s just how the film humanizes the traitor while at the same time making a saint out of the Messiah.
The biblical juxtaposition makes the already powerful story more compelling. Judas and the Black Messiah seems to position itself as one of the Passion stories within the Black communities. King and the writers take the political context of the Passion and get it aligned with the political turmoil in the aftermath of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. FBI takes the mantle of the High Priest with Mitchell as Annas and Hoover as Caiaphas in a highly antagonistic fashion. It’s a call to observe how the Black struggle in the US is often ridden by other interests or completely manipulated by the establishment. It’s also a reminder of how the establishment could go the extra mile to sabotage a revolution. That’s the reason this two-side biopic arrives: as a call to action and a reminder of an ongoing revolution.