“ONWherever there are people there is power. “This is one of the many gathering cries in the new film Judas and the Black Messiah from director and co-writer Shaka King. The film is so full of such quotes that it seems overly preaching at first glance, but it doesn’t. The film lives up to its title and highlights the humanity and the work that Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) wanted to achieve in the last year of his life.
But it’s not just his story or that of the Black Panthers. Instead, attention is drawn to his Judas: Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).
From 1968 with O’Neal, a 17-year-old carjacker who uses a fake FBI badge to steal his chosen ride (“A badge is scarier than a gun,” he says) and then gets arrested. Faced with at least 15 years in prison, real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers him a deal – infiltrate the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton’s inner circle.
He agrees and the game will start.
We find Hampton, the passionate speaker who makes passionate speeches and works in the community, including setting up free breakfast programs and free health clinics. We also see threads of the more militant defense of the Black Panther, glorified or slandered by no one but the FBI agents and J. Edgar Hoover (a heavily made-up Martin Sheen) who are trying to defeat the party.
When O’Neal finds his way, he quickly finds the most efficient ways to get near Hampton and shares information with Mitchell and the FBI.
He follows Hampton as he eventually expands the scope of the party’s platform, introduces the Rainbow Coalition that unites Pather, Crown, Young Lords, and Young Patriots, as well as other Chicago gangs of all origins, in a non-aggression pact and works together to elevate their respective communities the poverty.
O’Neal rises to be the head of the Chapter’s security and invaluable access. Over time, however, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain one’s composure and apathy towards movement.
We as an audience know what’s going to happen. Even if you don’t know the story, the clue is in the title.
And told in an entirely biblical manner, “Jude and the Black Messiah” interweaves the events that led to the betrayal with powerful storytelling, powerful accomplishments, and vulnerability when it comes to Hampton and his humanity.
Kaluuya is steadfast in his portrayal of Chairman Fred and Stanfield quietly plays the duality in O’Neal well.
What “Judas” does really well is that it never turns any of its characters into a caricature.
The story, while slightly dragging through the second act, works to expose every detail that leads to the climatic ending.
It is interesting that this was published within months of the Trial of the Chicago 7, which takes place at the same time and location as Judas and reflects on similar subjects. But “Judas” is the superior film.
The story is more convincing and is told more skillfully. Where “Trial” gets too prophetic and verbose, “Judas” doesn’t feel like it cuts the point and allusions to modern activism and the struggles for your head as much. The connections are there, but they feel more naturally placed.
Overall, the story that led to Fred Hampton’s death is standout for its excellence and a solid script that captivates “Judas and the Black Messiah” in a world where similar problems still exist almost 60 years later.