Hollywood’s relationship with the Black Panther Party is about as graceful and nuanced as the general public’s, and that’s certainly no accident. Though plenty of documentaries have taken great pains to accurately outline the Panthers’ roots, including the more recent Vanguard of the Revolution from Stanley Nelson, attempts at fictionalizing the once far-reaching, Oakland-based movement have ranged from being punchlines in Forrest Gump to pitiable victims in last year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. And this is mainly because storytellers generally don’t have a clue how audiences will react to a film that presents outspoken, militant, American socialists as underdog protagonists, which is sort of the point in Shaka King’s new biographical drama, Judas and the Black Messiah.
Based on real events, the film takes great pains to demonstrate the FBI’s attempts to thoroughly dismantle the Black Panther Party by any means necessary, in large part because they saw it as their duty to root out all elements of socialism before it could really take off in the public consciousness during the height of the Civil Rights era in the late 1960s. We see this laid out in the film’s opening act, when FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) recruits William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) to become their informant, infiltrating the Black Panthers’ ranks in exchange for avoiding jail time over, interestingly enough, impersonating a federal officer as a way to jump cars. O’Neal successfully becomes a leader within the Panthers’ Chicago chapter and feeds the FBI plenty of information, while along the way battling his own mixed feelings between supporting a movement he perhaps agrees with and looking out for himself first and foremost. The title of this film isn’t exactly subtle.
If that was all there is to Judas and the Black Messiah, we’d already be gifted a complex, shifting narrative with a lot to say about how government intervention disenfranchised the spread of ideas by provoking violence and using said violence as a justification for poisoning the optics around said ideas (we need only look at Black Lives Matter to see how history indeed repeats itself). But then the film introduces us to the indispensibe portrayal of Chicago’s Black Panther Chairmen, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), and it uses the full quote.
By full quote, I mean the entire context for Hampton’s most oft-repeated sentiment around Black liberation. We’ve often seen liberal politicians wield Hampton’s words without finishing the quote, but its context really is key to what ultimately brought Hampton to his untimely end as one of the Black Panthers’ most effective leaders:
“We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism. We’ve stood up and said we’re not going to fight reactionary pigs and reactionary state’s attorneys like this and reactionary state’s attorneys like Hanrahan with any other reactions on our part. We’re going to fight their reactions with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.“
That last part of the quote is especially notable considering how the film establishes Hampton’s charisma in action, as he’s able to join forces with racist hate groups by simply pointing out that they’re all being held down by the same economic injustices, which eventually leads to Hampton’s formation of the real-life Rainbow Coalition. A true strength of Judas is its focus on why Hampton was deemed such a societal threat by the FBI, without allowing room for any justification whatsoever for what ultimately went down.
Further, Kaluuya is given room and space to define the character outside of his public rhetoric. Hampton in this film is worldly and intimate, which is what makes his connection to O’Neal all the more tragic. Stanfield is simply too charismatic of an actor to make you hate him in all moments, but there is certainly nothing but contempt to be had. It’s an understanding of O’Neal’s actions, but not really empathy. It’s hard to imagine how this film could have succeeded to this high a degree with any other casting.
That certainly extends to the women in Judas, notably Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson and Dominique Thorne as Judy Harmon, who manage to steal the spotlight within the confines of a script that often downplays their contributions. There are far too many moments when Johnson in particular is written as the “concerned love interest,” a trope that’s disappointing to see in an otherwise subversive film. But Fishback’s ability to spar with Kaluuya as they establish their romance is what really works here, as she’s able to challenge and even inspire Hampton without losing momentum for what ultimately attracts them to one another. It’s just a shame she’s not given much else to do outside of supporting Hampton’s ambitions. Conversely, Thorne simply isn’t in the movie enough, though she makes the case for being the film’s true center in two particularly exciting scenes, which include a tense interrogation of O’Neal and a high-stakes shootout.
Despite some of these missed opportunities, Judas and the Black Messiah is an unflinching powerful, one of the few must-see favorites coming out of this year’s Sundance and an obvious contender for any awards that will hopefully come its way. It’s a spoil of riches in its performances, from the inspiring, thought-provoking life of Fred Hampton to the dark, tragically relevant cynicism of William O’Neal, which isn’t even getting into Martin Sheen as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Jermaine Fowler as Mark Clark, Algee Smith as Jake Winters, and the list just keeps going. No matter where you stand on the legacy of the Black Panthers, or especially if you feel completely out of the loop when it comes to what they were truly about, Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the most entertaining, yet incisive ways into their story.