Judas and the Black Messiah
BRON Studios, 2021
Will Berson et al and Shaka King
📷 : Used with permission, Snollygoster Productions (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
Julius Caesar. 1984. Antony and Cleopatra. Stories of betrayal can be heavily appealing to many of us. Though the aforementioned examples straddle reality and fiction, you can find plenty of real-world instances of a character using someone’s trust to double cross them. Take for instance mob movies like Donnie Brasco, based on one of many real-life cases of undercover law enforcement entering a mob family. Such characters often prove to be anticipatory and quick on their feet, causing the audience to root for them to escape with their concealed identity intact.
The story trope of a mole infiltrating an organized group, be it criminals, activists or law enforcement, conjures up angst and anticipation in viewers who are game. The popular TV series 24 managed to recycle this trope for the better part of eight seasons, earning high ratings the entire way. As fans watch these stories play out, they tend to be drawn in by the dramatic irony. Will the imposter be caught and what will be the consequences? If you’ve indulged in this storytelling enough, you know the stakes are often life and death; and not a peaceful death at that.
Judas and the Black Messiah deals with one such story surrounding a revolutionary figure in Black history along with Black Panther Party leader, Fred Hampton. Rather than take the conventional angle of centering the story around Hampton, Judas instead chooses the perspective of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, Get Out). A street hustler turned FBI informant, O’Neal strikes a deal with FBI Agent Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, The Irishman) to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in exchange for a reduced sentence. In doing so, he finds himself in perilous situations with his cover nearly blown while also questioning where his allegiances ultimately lie.
Judas and the Black Messiah maintains a level of intensity throughout with strong performances from its leads in Plemons, Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. Despite its formidable cast, the film occasionally misses opportunities to submerge its audience in the time period, as 1968 was a turbulent year filled with assassinations, hate crimes, and news of the ongoing Vietnam War. Sometimes, rather than portraying real-world events or even story events on-screen, the script opts to simply tell the audience through dialogue. Additionally, while Kaluuya gives a riveting performance, Fred Hampton remains the “1b” character to O’Neal, which may frustrate viewers who are drawn to the lore of this larger-than-life figure.
Nonetheless, the film will certainly entice those that enjoy stories of betrayal. Watching Judas and the Black Messiah may take you back to sitting in the movie theater (remember those?) and taking in American Gangster or White Boy Rick, to mention just two such films of the same sub-genre. Though none of these movies is perfect, moviegoers could enjoy all three for their elements of dramatic irony and suspense. Your familiarity with the story of Fred Hampton may tip off the ending to you, but the journey to this finale would make it worth the ride. That is, if you’re into that sort of thing.