Baggie Nomination #8:
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021) is a heartbreaking historical masterpiece by Shaka King (his first film of this magnitude) which is centered around the war between the FBI and the Black Panther Party in the late 1960’s. Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, was the deputy chairman of the Black Panther’s national party, so much of the film portrays his leadership, but also his personal life with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) who will be welcoming their first child together the year the film takes place – 1969. Hampton wrestles with his duty to the cause and his responsibility to Deborah and their unborn child, as his position in the Party continues to give him an ever-growing target on his back.
We also meet William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield), who is a reluctant FBI informant. After being arrested at the ripe age of 17 for attempting to hijack a car while posing as a federal officer, he is offered the opportunity to have his charges dropped if he worked undercover for the Federal Bureau. This choice devastatingly ended up used against him to corner him, threaten him and control him throughout the entirety of his life. King thoughtfully juxtaposes the way that these two men fought for their freedom as Black American’s against the corrupt and racist world in which they live – especially as they are pitted against each other as O’Neal is sent to keep tabs on Hampton. The film gives a clear picture of the lengths that the American government has and will go to in order to silence Black people in this country. (also see: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”).
It is not an easy watch. It is devastating, frustrating, gritty and grim. That being said, it is incredibly well crafted. It is never misses a beat and the performances are astounding. The screenplay was the uncompromising collaboration of King, along with Will Berson, and brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas. It is focused on the story of Bill O’Neal’s life and loss, but it is a commentary on fear and power and control. There are so many stories that loosely take a look at the Black Panther Party, and Spike Lee certainly tackled a very similar project when he brought BlacKKKlansman to the forefront, where you witnessed the competing dynamics of the Black Panthers, the KKK, and the FBI. However, Shaka King ambitiously took on the most deplorable realities that existed at the underbelly of the so-called heroes of this time. Namely, that no matter how noble, how innocent, how hardworking you were at this time, if you were Black, you were not going to win. This film takes a look at the varying degrees of conflict and moral ambiguity that dominated these men’s lives in a powerful way.
The film is sprinkled with tons of powerful archival footage found by the assistant editors and post-production supervisor, Francis Power, which gave the creators tons of insights about the political unrest of the time period and the various participants in the movement. But, the only footage the filmmakers were able to reference for William O’Neal was the “Eyes on the Prize 2” documentary (1987) that’s briefly featured at the end of the film. O’Neal’s history was deconstructed in more detail in a rare book “The Badge They Are Trying To Bury,” which King bought for about $800. For Hampton’s story, the actors actually went to Chicago and met with current Black Panthers Chairman, Fred Hampton Jr. (Hampton’s son), and Mother Akua (formerly known as Deborah Johnson) for seven hours to get as much information as they could.
The first half of “Judas and the Black Messiah” plays like a historical crime drama, but the undertones are powerful. The second half takes on the grim truths and it is difficult to watch, but effective storytelling. Shaka King never sensationalizes the trauma, but focuses intently on the emotion. There is a particularly jarring scene where Dominique Fishback stares blankly at the camera, conveying more behind a pair of eyes than most can do with a million expressions. The film is a must-see of the season, and Daniel Kaluuya’s performance is the perhaps one of the best of the year.