The fight for true equality and justice in America is a story that continues to unfold in this modern era of ours. It is a story that has its fair share of noticeable villains, heroes, prophets, traitors, and victims. Of course, the deeper you dig past the obvious icons and antagonists, a grey area emerges; one that time and time again displays the volatile and deadly effects a cultural reckoning has on the people involved. Especially in those fraught years of the 1960’s and 1970’s, America was alight with the flames of young Black Americans finally pushing back against the oppressors that for so long denied them and their ancestors so many natural birth rights. In these cultural flames emerged the conflict between the Black Panther Party and the U.S. Government. Where some viewed the Party as a boon to impoverished communities across America, providing food and shelter to those (of any color) in need, others viewed the Party as something much more threatening to the fabric of America, or more accurately, a threat to the racial status quo.
Emerging as a strong power within the organization, the young and charismatic Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Chapter, and with him, utilized his tenacity and charm to only expand the influence of the Black Panther Party. Sensing the arrival of a new and viable figurehead for a movement that was less than profitable to the old ways of American society, it didn’t take long for U.S. Government and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself to paint a visible and vocal target on Hampton’s back. It is at this crucial moment, where the government took it upon themselves to shelve a vector of social change, where Shaka King’s slick yet muted JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH takes place.
Despite its biblical titling, the dramatization of Hampton’s (played here by Daniel Kaluuya) eventual betrayal by one of his “own” — Bill O’ Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a low end criminal now used as the FBI’s unwilling mole — plays out in broad strokes; an efficient and, at times, emotionally effective history lesson. While it’s thrilling opening — detailing O’Neal’s fateful run-in and subsequent unwilling recruital into the FBI’s dark dealings — sets the stage for a tragedy viewed the eyes of the betrayer himself, King — who shares writing credits with Will Berson and Kenny and Keith Lucas — fails to dig into the people at the heart of a true and unsettling assassination. The script keeps things brisk, scurrying through O’Neal’s arrest, recruitment, and subsequent acceptance into Hampton’s party and eventually, his close circle; but as a result, any true emotional attachment or insight into O’Neal is left to the wind. As it turns out, the “Judas” doesn’t even much interact with, or form that great of a bond with the “Black Messiah”. Instead, O’Neal becomes a sort of narrative transport vehicle through Hampton’s life up until his moment with tragedy as we get glimpses into the genuinely interesting aspects of not only Hampton’s seemingly good-willed chapter but of the malevolent machinations of the FBI, personified in Jesse Plemons’ FBI agent, a literal spook who haunts over O’Neal with promises and threats in equal measure. As a crash course in splaying out the gist of a conspiracy aimed at toppling a game-changing activist, JUDAS does its job well; but as a film that possibly aims to look at the deeper personal dilemmas of such a historical moment, King and his crew seemingly barely scratch the surface of putting viewers in either O’Neal’s or Hampton’s frame of mind.
On a production level, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is crisp and defined, bringing out the rougher and more torn edges of 1960’s America. Utilizing cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, the likes of Hampton and O’Neal are visually placed into their respective roles in history; with Hampton’s intense glower and stance filling even the open spaces of King’s camera and O’Neal’s increasingly cornered existence closing closer and closer on Stanfield’s physically emotional performance. As the two major players of this tale, Mr. Kaluuya and Mr. Stanfield — two performers who only improve with each performance they take on — do some good work here, with Kaluuya bringing to life Hampton’s charisma and silent power and Stanfield utilizing his darting eyes and frame to give some emotional heft to O’Neal’s growing paranoia and uneasiness. However, even as these performers put in good work, the subjects themselves are kept within their eponymous titles. For each man, King struggles to move past their labeling in life, leaving Hampton to remain a charismatic icon and O’Neal to remain a weakened and desperate narc. Indeed, for being a film that’s told from O’Neal’s perspective, JUDAS hardly ever looks closer into its traitor’s mindset or internal drives and fears, relying mostly on Stanfield’s conflicted eyes to do the heavy lifting which is shame considering the fact that the real O’Neal seemed to have a complicated turmoil about his role within the Party. Whether or not the real man cared about Hampton or his ideals is muted when compared to the actual fact that the FBI essentially put a hit out on their own citizen but it makes for an interesting avenue that King fails to fully explore, leaving the blank sketch instead of a man who is simply there. As a result, the “betrayal” itself, when it inevitably arrives, between O’Neal and Hampton fails to hold any genuine emotional weight or suspense.
While certainly a historical event that warrants its pop culture coverage, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH can’t quite paint a full picture of an unseemly image. Like Hampton himself, King’s film will capture your attention with its subject matter and appearance but unlike the young activist, this film can’t quite dig deeper into either its subject or the viewer.