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Image Description: A film still from "Judas and the Black Messiah" focuses on a young Black man who is speaking in a small crowd of people. He wears a black beret and speaks into a small microphone in front of him. Other men, all wearing berets can be seen surrounding him.

Issue 002 Spring 2021 Reviews

To Live as You Die

A Review of Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah

by Rachell Morillo

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). Film still courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It is difficult to muster more than anger toward William O’Neal, whose betrayal of Chairman Fred Hampton facilitated his government-sanctioned murder. Even more so when you consider the long history of Black revolutionaries in the United States who have experienced violent, untimely ends. It is difficult to not see everything in black and white, right and wrong, or simply just all red. What ambitions could turn two young Black men from Chicago into a fallen leader and his familiar traitor?

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) searches for justification behind the betrayal and reveals the brutal intimacy of the deception. Directed by Shaka King, the film is a historically accurate period piece with the dramatic flair and intricacy of a Scorsese crime thriller. Strewn with Biblical connotations, the film also likens the ascent of the Illinois Black Panther Party chairman (Daniel Kaluuya) and the treachery of O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) to the story of Jesus of Nazareth and Judas. In doing so, it provides a clear referent for audiences who may not be familiar with this particular story or its dynamics.

While the film investigates the personal aspects of this violation of trust well, not enough is done to focus attention on the true culprit: state mechanisms that pit one Black man against another. Furthermore, the film historicizes the political work of the Panthers in ways that can be harmful to ongoing struggles. While it is a riveting historical drama, Judas and the Black Messiah mimics but does not embody the anti-authoritarian values of the Party.

The film is successful because of the precision with which it splices and reframes the organization’s story. King uses evocative cinematography, textured audio, and meticulous sound design to present a studied, artistic take on tensions among Party members, other organizers, and the government.

It is difficult to not see everything in black and white, right and wrong, or simply just all red.
The opening sequence, for example, cycles through a compilation of documentary footage, summarizing Party history while adding visual texture. Set to the rhythm of the Watts Prophets’ “Dem Niggers Ain’t Playing,” the sequence reminds audiences of the Party’s roots as part of a larger boom in revolutionary organizing. The supercut subtly emphasizes the Marxist practices and youthful Black urban aesthetic that distinguished the Panthers, laying a strong visual and sonic foundation for the rest of the film. Each frame that follows parrots the intimate framing and texture of archival images from the 1960s.

With its mix of archival audio, original scoring, and improvisational jazz, Judas and the Black Messiah’s sonic components set a somber tone befitting a good crime thriller. The soundtrack keeps apace with the urgency and fervor felt by each of the characters while remaining authentic to the time period. Similarly, the styling of the film captures the allure and edge of the Panther’s distinctive fashion, which remains an integral characteristic of the Party’s influence today. Costuming is also employed to evocatively render the arc of a character’s story. Sartorial decisions illustrate O’Neal’s transformation from street kid to paid informant, and the journey of Deborah Johnson (Hampton’s partner, played by Dominique Fishback) from college student to comrade to expectant mother.

Each formal decision makes audiences aware that King, as well as the rest of the team, spent time immersed in the lives of their subjects––touching their clothes, looking at their images, listening to their music. Yet the filmmakers stop short of breaking with Hollywood convention. Months, and even years, are condensed and edited into minutes; composite characters stand in for complex individuals; and stylization glamorizes rough and bloody struggles. As is typical, the grit and messiness of political organizing is cleansed for the sake of a thrilling yet digestible nostalgic narrative.

While the film rises to the challenge of recounting what occurred, it remains limited in its scope. By favoring the story of such a powerful leader’s demise, the filmmakers reify dominant narratives of POC-led political movements. These accounts are predominantly centered on men and assert that in-fighting within organizations such as the Panthers and the Young Lords is ultimately responsible for their disintegration. Kaluuya’s and Stanfield’s portrayals of Hampton and O’Neal, respectively, are no exception to this honest yet ultimately glorifying depiction.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). Film still courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

As Hampton, Kaluuya paints the chairman as an emboldened poet who wields words as a weapon. In Kaluuya’s elocution we hear the speech patterns of so many Black leaders that came before, the strong undercurrent of Baptist traditions. In Kaluuya’s cadence, the power of the church and its history of oration meets the experience of Black youth—specifically the children of the Great Migration. Living in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, this generation was keen to make real the aspirations of both movements.

Driven by generations of struggle, Hampton is unequivocal in his dedication to justice. Kaluuya portrays him as the galvanizing but lambasting force he was: uniting, on one hand, the leftist, communist, and anti-war movements, and on the other, a divisive figure who often alienated people from his own communities. The film highlights the fact that it was precisely this unique ability to both stir and unite the people that made Hampton “the single greatest threat” to state operations, according to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, framed in the film as a Pontius Pilate.

Moving beyond his enigmatic persona, the film sheds light on intimate moments rife with anxiety and tender hope. Witnessing the chairman’s deepest fears and personal struggles adds depth to what it meant to live and love—not just die—as he did.

From early on in the film, and to an increasing degree later on, Hampton is resigned to the fact that he will die for his people. Echoing Jesus’s own foreshadowing of his crucifixion, Hampton emphatically proclaims, “I believe I’m gonna die doing what I was born for.” In another context, this kind of claim might strike as hyperbole, but in his case it turns out to be truly prophetic. Later, in a scene that proves to be Hampton’s very own Agony in the Garden, he admits to Johnson that he had very little issue with his impending death until he found he had “every reason to live.” Prompted by Johnson’s poignant recitation of an original poem, they sit with the weight of potentially bringing another life into the world. It is then that we really see the chairman’s youth, that we watch him waver in his resolve to fight until he meets the same fight as Malcolm X, Huey Newton, or even Jake Winters.

Image Descriptions: Still from "Judas and the Black Messiah" picturing three young Black people, one man and two women, sitting with their backs against a wall. Both women have large afros and wear silver necklaces. The man's arm is wrapped affectionately around the shoulders of one of the women. They appear to be a couple.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). Film stills courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Kaluuya’s Hampton is rivaled by an expertly acted Judas in Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal. The lauded actor demonstrates a meticulous attention to detail in telling O’Neal’s often simplified part of the story. From his very first scene, we are introduced to a clever shapeshifter, some might even call him slippery. We meet someone who is lost and easily spooked when confronted. O’Neal is therefore an infiltrator who experiences moments of deep internal turmoil, at times even seeming to forget his role as an informant.

While we receive few details as to how he came to live his current life, Stanfield’s shifting eyes and quivering voice make plain that O’Neal was a guarded man who had very little sense of community. His sense of individualism, fueled by capitalist greed, is in the end what feeds his glorification of the state and law enforcement agents. Through Stanfield’s astute and emphatic acting, we come to understand how O’Neal could become someone willing to sell information to the FBI.

What Stanfield does particularly well is layer these complexities onto a character that would otherwise be reduced to a dimensionless villain. In his tear-filled eyes and demure posture we witness Judas’s second guessing; we understand the heaviness of accepting and sinking into one’s fate as an archetype. O’Neal learns that what is true for Hampton is also true for himself, that what you give your life to is what you will die for.

Can we revere fallen leaders without exalting martyrdom?
In this way, O’Neal and Hampton, Judas and Jesus, are not too dissimilar. Each questions the role they have been assigned, but in the end, each remains resigned. Their roles are in no way one and the same, but they are fated. Drawing these parallels creates an uncomfortable dissonance for audiences even within the story of a Party whose intent was to create dissonance. Instead of opposite poles, we can understand these two roles as inextricably linked and subject to the same forces.

Yet for all of the film’s artistry, its ease in sitting with multiplicity, it remains a project defined by limited imagination. While the film manages consciousness raising without sacrificing artistic vision, its content is not groundbreaking. For one, given how scarce nuanced portrayals of queer and femme Black leaders are in narrative films, a focus on those untold stories would have been more innovative. I would be interested to see how a Black feminist perspective could break open the parameters of this genre of feature films in a way that elides superficial representation.

I also question what––aside from reviewing the trauma of ongoing state violence––Black audiences stand to gain. At a time when the aesthetic of the Party has been co-opted for commercial purposes and surviving Panthers languish in prison or are otherwise marginalized, I wonder if there is more harm than good in mainstream depictions that historicize an ongoing struggle. Can we revere fallen leaders without exalting martyrdom?