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.
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.