I remember when I was a kid, watching a movie about the Freedom Summer murders, having this terrible sick feeling throughout the whole thing, because I knew what was coming and all I could do was wait. I had the same feeling watching Judas and the Black Messiah, a movie that I’m kind of shocked a major studio even made.
And so my ears perked up when an FBI agent in the new film actually uses the names of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner to somehow then argue that the Black Panthers are the same thing as the Ku Klux Klan. He says this to William O’Neal, the car thief he’s coerced into infiltrating and informing on the Panthers, and while O’Neal doesn’t seem to see how that’s all connected either, he also knows he doesn’t have much choice but to sit there and listen.
Judas and the Black Messiah is the story of O’Neal and the young Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was shot to death by law enforcement while sleeping in his bed, after he’d been drugged by O’Neal. And it’s a remarkable film, in that it’s both a solid piece of mostly classical filmmaking and also a movie released by Warner that actually treats Hampton like a human being and doesn’t hedge on the notion that the feds and police are the villains in this story.
Even more remarkable though, are the electrifying performances by the two leads, LaKeith Stanfield as O’Neal and Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. Kaluuya pulses with energy, showing Hampton’s tremendous skill as an orator, his canny ability as a negotiator, and his dedication to his cause. Stanfield has to wrap himself around a much more slippery character—it’s never been clear how O’Neal truly felt about what he did, and rather than put words in his mouth, Stanfield displays his incredible knack at showing multiple emotions on his face at the same time. We can see whatever conflict must be there churning through him.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful, difficult film, one with a perspective that’s necessary to hear as we work to gain a better understanding of our country’s fraught racial history.
Judas and the Black Messiah is available on HBO Max beginning February 12th.
Follow Fletcher Powell on Twitter @Fletcher_Powell.