The war between United States intelligence agencies and citizens has stood the test of time. Back in the 1960s, the American government labeled black nationalist groups, such as the Black Panther Party, as threats to national security due to their ties to communist revolutionary groups. The FBI then decided to send an informant into the ranks of the Black Panthers to monitor their actions and ultimately bring them down.
When it comes to dismantling domestic terror groups, how far is too far for government actions and executions? Most answers will vary depending on who the target is and that leads us to director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
In the late 1960s, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, racial tensions in the U.S. have reached a boiling point. One night in Chicago, William “Bill” O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is arrested for attempting to steal cars while posing as a federal officer. Knowing he has O’Neal dead to rights, FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers to drop the charges if he works undercover for the bureau.
Having no other choice, O’Neal is assigned to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is viewed as a threat to national security, as the self-proclaimed revolutionary has grown in influence with anti-American groups. O’Neal struggles to gain the trust of the group, which is highly hostile to the authorities, while earning the FBI’s confidence in hopes that his assignment will lead to his freedom.
The film’s shining star is Kaluuya, whose recent run during the 2021 award season is showing that he is finally getting the recognition he deserves. Even since his rookie days in the U.K. television series “Skins,” Kaluuya has displayed an unparalleled charm with an ability to steal the scene in every film he is in.
Stanfield also stands out as the sympathetic “Judas,” who is thrown into a war that is much bigger than himself. Throughout, viewers lean towards the plight of his character in a film that could have easily portrayed him as a sellout for assisting the FBI in bringing down the Panthers. However, the film successfully shows the conflict as more nuanced.
Government distrust is at the core of this story as we look at how intelligence agencies use otherwise illegal tactics to get the results they want. The black community has mirrored this distrust of police officers on a local level, but the puppet masters here are the FBI.
Screenwriters Will Berson and King do a great job at highlighting injustice on a human level by letting the characters bring the story to life.
One of the most powerful scenes shows Hampton’s Panthers attempting to form a coalition with The Crowns, two ideologically opposed forces of the same coin. The scene displayed the remnants of the legacies that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X left behind, a struggle that continues to this day despite the Malcolm X brand of nationalism gaining more ground in the eyes of the Black Lives Matter movement. The setting is intimate enough to display the revolutionary days of the late ’60s and does well capturing that wrinkle in time.
One of the glaring problems this film has is its struggle to balance the tone between the conflict of its two main characters. In part, the film loses its focus on Hampton, which leads to the underutilization of his character. The attempts to humanize him with his love interest pull focus away from the larger story at hand and don’t pay off in the end.
The ability to cover the amount of material needed requires a razor-like focus this film doesn’t have. The ending leaves a message that no matter what role you play, we are all pawns of a much bigger game of chess. While more sophisticated audiences will appreciate the nuance, it is difficult to sell that same message to the “ACAB” crowd to which the marketing of this film will cater.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a good film that with some polishing could’ve been a great film. The performances of Kaluuya and Stanfield are worthy of award praise and audience acclaim. The film is a good jump-off point for people who want to learn more about civil rights-era organizations while understanding the gray area between the best and worst parts of our society.