Judas and the Black Messiah movie review: Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya share spotlight in tragic tale of betrayal

Prahlad Srihari
·5-min read

Deemed a threat to national security, Fred Hampton €" the Black Messiah in Judas and the Black Messiah €" was gunned down in his sleep by the police in 1969. The Black Panthers leader was just 21. So was Sophie Scholl when she was executed for her role in the anti-Nazi movement in Hitler's Germany.

She and other student members of the White Rose resistance group had written and distributed leaflets opposing the regime. It brings to mind the passive resistance efforts of another 21-year-old who's been in the news recently. Climate change activist Disha Ravi was charged with sedition for allegedly editing a 'toolkit' to support India's protesting farmers. It seems the youth represent the biggest threat to the ruling class. That's why history is full of governments cracking down on young dissenters.

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton.

For the American government in the 1960s, the Black Panther Party represented the two C-words they didn't want to hear: civil rights and communism. Fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam had galvanised otherwise independent groups into a collective counterculture movement. So, the governing elite sought the FBI's help to "disrupt, misdirect and neutralise" any movement towards revolutionary social change. Furthermore, the Panthers advocated a self-defense strategy against police brutality. And that made them "the single greatest threat to our national security," as then-FBI director J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) describes them in Judas and the Black Messiah.

Against the backdrop of a cold Chicago painted in chiaroscuro, the Shaka King directorial recounts the events preceding Hampton's assassination through the eyes of the man who betrayed him. William O'Neal, the Judas to Hampton's Black Messiah, was 17 when he faced an unconscionable ultimatum: go to prison for car theft or help the FBI bring down the Panthers. He was 17, apolitical and a survivalist. So, he chose the latter. What follows is a Donnie Brasco-esque story of his rise through the ranks of the Panthers' Illinois chapter to take it down from the inside.

Lakeith Stanfield as William O'Neal
Lakeith Stanfield as William O'Neal

Lakeith Stanfield as William O'Neal

Like Donnie Brasco, Bill O'Neal wrestles with his conscience and faces internal conflicts aplenty. Paranoia etched on his face, Lakeith Stanfield is a leaking nuclear reactor of nervous energy. The unease in his eyes, the anxiety in his smile and the stiffness in a clenched fist lays bare a man clearly on edge, itching to escape but with no way out of it. He is skittish well before he goes undercover. We see it in the introductory scene, where he poses as an FBI agent to steal a car. When Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) serves O'Neal an ultimatum, he is essentially weaponising a desperate man's self-preservation instincts against himself. O'Neal is a pawn, an unlucky one at it because the FBI could have easily coerced the next Black petty thief into doing the same job. King understands the socio-economic conditions which birth such Judases, but fails to probe the personal context or backstory to how O'Neal found himself in this catch-22.

O'Neal's job is not an easy one in the charismatic presence of Hampton. "That motherfucker Fred, he could sell salt to a slug," he admits to Mitchell over dinner. Hampton gets the kind of biographical sketch that, although stylistically straightforward, commands attention through the electrifying presence at its centre. Daniel Kaluuya paints a persuasive picture of an oratorically gifted revolutionary. The gift is illustrated when his impassioned plea for a cross-class and cross-racial movement against capitalism turns into a unified concert of marginalised voices, all chanting "I am a revolutionary." Against this backdrop, King also frames O'Neal and Mitchell in a vigilant game of exchanged glances. For a moment, it seems like Hampton has won O'Neal over as the latter joins the rallying cry for a revolution. Then, the inner conflict externalises in more conscious body language when he notices Mitchell in the crowd.

With any film where you know the tragedy that ultimately befalls its subject, there's always a mournful atmosphere. Judas and the Black Messiah feels not only like a eulogy to Hampton, but also a procession towards his inevitable fate. There is no avoiding it. Hampton was killed by the police while he lay drugged and unconscious, next to his pregnant fiancée Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). King never shows Hampton being shot, but trains his camera on Fishback's face of horror. It's her reaction that makes it all the more chilling, evoking the horror of Breonna Taylor who was murdered not in a much dissimilar way last year.

Far too often, Hollywood has normalised heavy-handed policing, while patriotising the perceived threats Americans face day-to-day. Judas and the Black Messiah counters the fiction of a non-partisan law enforcement, by showing just how agencies like the FBI subverted the efforts of those the government deemed "radical." The film opens with archival footage of all the "radical" things the Panthers hoped to achieve in Black neighbourhoods. As Bobby Seale lists them out, this included free breakfast, medical clinic, legal aid, and children's education programmes. Apparently, these were radical enough to be branded "the single greatest threat to national security." What is "radical", albeit of a whole different kind, is the way FBI used O'Neal to entrap Hampton. In a scene, O'Neal, who's wearing a wire, shows up with a car trunk full of C-4 to coax Hampton and co. into committing more violent acts of resistance. Hampton brushes him off, to be sure.

"The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same. Their aim is to sow hatred and inspire terror," says Hoover in the movie. It is a false narrative which continues to be reinforced to this day. Equating the motivations of the Panthers (or the Black Lives Matter movement) to that of white supremacists is ill-judged, not to mention dangerous. One is rooted in the fight against systemic inequality and police brutality. The other is a shared delusion of those who dream of bygone days of white imperialism and racism without ramifications. The same holds true for the false equivalency between minority rights activists and Hindu supremacists in India.

Rating: 3.5

Judas and the Black Messiah releases in Indian cinemas on 5 March.

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