Representation of black art and black history within a historically euro-centric society has always been paramount and extremely significant to my experience as an African-American male. Even during Black History month, though black figures are somewhat talked about, many are often overlooked. “Judas and the Black Messiah,” released on Feb. 12, 2021, focuses on Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and his relationship with undercover federal informant William O’Neal.
Daniel Kaluuya (“Black Mirror,” “Get Out,” “Queen and Slim”), LaKeith Stanfield (“Atlanta,” “Get Out,” “Sorry to Bother You”), and Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”) all give standout performances, directly encapsulating the varying mindsets and emotions that were prevalent throughout America in the 1960s. Daniel Kaluuya, in particular, who plays Fredrick Hampton, brings life to the character, which could be difficult as he is portraying a radical yet extremely charismatic revolutionary, but in rallying and believable.
In his speeches, you feel his pain but also his dedication to fighting for equality. He firmly believes that the police force is directly opposed to the rights and liberties of all the citizens in Chicago—not just black—and throughout the movie, he often repeats phrases from Malcolm X and exclaims how his life is for the people. These allusions reinforce his role as a leader but also reinforce his circumstance as a product of his environment and of the systems in place.
The “antagonist” is the FBI and the policing forces within America, the Judas in the film is William O’Neal, portrayed by LaKeith Stanfield. William O’Neal is an FBI informant, infiltrating the Chicago Black Panther Party. Though I do not think his acting is equal to Kaluuya, he also gives an amazing performance. By watching him and his relationship with the Panthers develop over the course of the film, you can start to understand his inner conflict, but then he will remind you that even though he is black and goes through the same struggles as the party, he is an inherently selfish person. In a sense, he is a representation of the inner contradictions of a human being.
Directed by Shaka King, the cinematography is good, but nothing extremely outstanding or memorable. The scenes with Kaluuya rallying supporters while during a speech, though powerful, are not visually unique and are not going to make you re-watch them.
The romance between Daniel Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback (played by Deborah Johnson) was also not very fleshed out. It felt forced and an anchor for emotional attachment, and their scenes together were not very entertaining, nor did the pair have much chemistry, and their relationship was not developed at all. The attempt seemed to be to introduce Fishback as a central character, but she did not have the charisma nor the relatability to feel like anything more than a side character, and I think it dragged the movie out and could have been left out or significantly altered.
Though the movie itself has some flaws, it gives some realistic and powerful insights into African-American groups and ideals in the United States from the 1960s to 80s. It is important, too, that they also highlighted some significant African-American leaders other than Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. Not to undermine their importance in American and especially Black history, but these activists have become the default when explaining African American history, which gives the impression that they are the only important and noteworthy black people. This movie also shows that the conflicted relationship between the police and African-American citizens has been negative for a very long time, not just in the wake of the incidents we had in 2020.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a great time, giving a look at a very important part of black history, and containing some great character moments and interactions. Though it lacks the aspect that will make it a “classic” in black cinema, it is a powerful dive into American history and race relations. The soundtrack, “Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album,” features contributions from Jay-Z, A$AP Rocky, H.E.R., etc. and it is excellent as well.