Spoiler Alert: This movie contains major spoilers for Judas and the Black Messiah (but if you know anything about the Black Panther Party, you already know what I’m about recap).
Ready to hear about a movie that will likely teach you more about Black history than most high schools in the U.S.?
Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King, was released in theaters and on HBO Max on Feb. 12. It is a film all about the Black Panther Party, especially Fred Hampton’s involvement as a leader, and William O’Neal’s hand in conspiring with the FBI to take it down. The film covers all of its bases: police brutality, the Black community, the Party building itself up every time it’s ripped apart, the mourning following another death at the hands of police, and humanizing historical characters through their relationships to one another. Most historical films over-dramatize situations for entertainment. Judas and the Black Messiah does not have to do so. In part, that is thanks to the incredible casting, especially of Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson. There wasn’t a weak character on screen, in my opinion; every actor played their part extremely well, even if their time on screen was minimal. Another favorable thing this film did was sequence its events in a very organized fashion.
Judas and the Black Messiah lets us know right away that it is a historical film: we see recordings of Black people delivering speeches, teaching children, gathering in the streets, etc., and we even see a recreation of William O’Neal’s only public interview in “Eyes on the Prize.” It’s a great way to get viewers situated and prepared for what they’re about to watch, even if we’re unfamiliar with the Black Panther Party.
The dialogue, perhaps only second to the casting, is my favorite thing about this film. There isn’t a line out of place, and they’re all delivered with the appropriate emotions. Some of my favorite lines from the film are as follows.
“A badge is scarier than a gun.” Yes, this is a direct call-out of police brutality. William O’Neal posed as an FBI agent to steal people’s cars, and, when he was caught for it, told FBI Agent Roy Mitchell that a badge came with an entire army behind it, as opposed to one oppressed man behind a gun.
“You can’t cheat your way to equality.” Mitchell said this in regards to the Black Panther Party, and it pissed me off. I am, unfortunately, a yell-at-the-screen type of person, so I thank my lucky stars that I watched this on HBO Max, from the comfort of my home. How on earth can you cheat your way into getting something that should be a given? Not only did this line upset me greatly, it just didn’t make any sense! It was a great way for the film to point out the hypocrisy and stupidity of the FBI.
“A glorious group of cop killers.” A police officer described the Black Panther Party as such while they were antagonizing Black people walking down the street. How hypocritical. Throughout the film, we see so many Black people get shot and killed, all as a result of police provoking them. By the way, the ones who were shot and didn’t die right away, were taken to the hospital only to never come back home. No matter what they did, members of the Black Panther Party were going to end up imprisoned or dead.
“What will you do the day [your daughter] brings home a young, Negro man?” Well, isn’t this just the strangest thing to say to someone with an eight-month-old daughter? This line was delivered to Mitchell by one of his superiors. Through the film, we see Mitchell occasionally soften up; his expressions when discussing Black Panther Party matters is enough for viewers to recognize that. His superior quickly set out to remind Mitchell that the Party is full of ‘enemies,’ and he can’t ‘start breaking now.’ (It works, by the way.)
Fred Hampton’s speech out of prison. His entire speech was beautiful, but one part in particular stuck out: “You can murder a liborator, but you can’t murder liberation; you can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder revolution; and you can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom!” The Black Panther Party continued after Hampton’s death, and members of it are still active in some way to this day. It is clear that his legacy was a great one, hence why the creation of this film was so appropriate.
“Prison is a temporary solution.” Chills. An FBI agent said this of Hampton’s prison sentence when discussing how to get him back into prison. Even if you don’t know Hampton’s story, this single line foreshadows what happens at the end of the film.
That brings us to the last couple of scenes. Police raided Fred Hampton’s apartment in the middle of the night, while most patrons were asleep. A total of 100 shots were fired that night — one by the Black Panther Party, and 99 by the police who invaded. Hampton was shot while he slept (very deeply, thanks to whatever it was that O’Neal slipped into his drink before he left). If that isn’t horrific enough, especially considering that actually happened just over 50 years ago, the film’s adaptation of those events was haunting. Hampton’s pregnant partner steps out into the hallway, and two police officers enter the room where Hampton is still slumbering. Two shots echo through the room, and the police joke about how he definitely won’t be waking up now. The whole time, we see Fishback in frame, quivering slightly, but expressionless otherwise.
To put it plainly: it’s mortifying. This scene, and many others in the film, is horrific. I was close to tears a number of times throughout the film, and I kept wishing it would end some other way even though I know it couldn’t have. Historical accuracy was very important for this film, and the Black Messiah earned another checkmark for it. Granted, you would never know that Fred Hampton was in his teens to early 20s based on Daniel Kaluuya’s casting, but I can hardly penalize the film for that when Kaluuya played his part so well.
I owe praise to the film for other notable things as well: the equal balance between Hampton and O’Neal’s stories (to the point that I would believe either one was the main character, even with O’Neal dominating the opening scene), the in-depth exploration of side characters, the fights that happened within the Party, and the realistic way romance is intertwined with the plot, so that it does not take away from the story.
The only other way to reiterate that Judas and the Black Messiah was beautifully crafted is to mention that it is gathering Oscar buzz. Both Kaluuya and Stanfield are contenders for actor awards; Fishback is a contender for an actress award, and the film itself could very well be nominated for Best Picture. You can guess, from my praise of it thus far, that I would love to see it have at least one nomination. The story of the Black Panther Party is one that everyone should know, especially considering our current political climate. You only have to half-pay attention to this film to see its similarities to Black Lives Matter protests. It’s not as bad now as it was then, but after 50 years, you would think we wouldn’t be able to see any similarities.
The Black Panther Party is what happens when a group of already oppressed people are tortured until they shatter. The police continually insulted, raided, shot, and arrested the members of these parties with little to no reason. The FBI is all too self-aware of the Klu Klux Klan, even comparing the Black Panther Party to it, so where was that energy when it came to the KKK? The truth is: White people were, and are, terrified of a Black revolution. Judas and the Black Messiah is an unfortunately accurate representation of what happens when White people fear an oppressed group is about to take power away from them.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Glen Wilson / Warner Bros