Matthew at the Movies: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Judas Iscariot was one of Christ’s apostles, one of the twelve people closest to him. Judas, after being offered money, betrayed his friend to the religious authorities. After Jesus’ death, Judas regretted his actions, returned the money, and hanged himself.

The story of Judas parallels the story of one Bill O’Neal. Based on a true story, the film follows Bill, a criminal, as he’s hired as an informant by the FBI to crawl up the ranks of the Illinois Black Panther Party to get close to Chairman Fred Hampton to gather information on how to take him down.

Films like these, particularly made in Hollywood, are usually watered-down portrayals of its characters, however, the film doesn’t attempt to hide or chisel down the identities of its characters. Fred Hampton is portrayed as a radical revolutionary, a socialist, and a powerful speaker. In fact, the scene where he’s introduced, he’s delivering one of his most famous quotes:

“We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

– Fred Hampton

Shortly afterwards, Hampton speaks to a group of young, radical students. The speaker, before introducing Hampton, celebrates the fact that their school’s name will be changed to Malcolm X School, to which the audience cheers. After Hampton is introduced, his first words take issue with the audience. His argument is that a name-change isn’t the same as revolution, it’s not the same as true liberation. It’s liberal reformism, as Hampton puts it, it makes slaves into “better slaves.” The enemy isn’t the names of schools and institutions, it’s capitalism and the exploitation of its people.

Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) plays Hampton, he adds the fiery explosiveness to Hampton’s words, but also portrays him as doubtful and unsure. Bill O’Neal is played by Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Knives Out, Sorry to Bother You), he plays O’Neal conflicted as he’s hired by the FBI to give valuable information on dismantling the Black Panther Party, but he’s slowly finding himself more and more radicalized. Without a doubt, these are two of the best performances of the year, perhaps the best, but we’ll see.

The supporting cast is upheld by Jesse Plemons (I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Master), who plays Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent who hired O’Neal. Plemons acts like Jack Nicholson, he can be calm and collected, but then switch to intimidating and terrifying in a second. Dominique Fishback (The Hate U Give) plays Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s girlfriend and the mother of his child. Fishback plays Johnson as supportive but independent, she does ground Hampton but she’s also an activist herself and argues with Hampton. Martin Sheen, in heavy make-up, plays J. Edgar Hoover, the racist FBI Director, I just wanted to point that out. I have strong words for Hoover.

The script, written by Will Berson, Shaka King, and Lenny and Keith Lucas, is powerful; depicting true events, like Hampton begin arrested for allegedly stealing ice cream and Hampton’s attempt to build a Rainbow Coalition, but the changes it adds don’t harm the real story. The film’s direction by Shaka King is formidable and incredible. It has the same rage, bitterness, ferocity, and veracity as a Spike Lee film, such as Malcolm X or BlacKkKlansman. In fact, this film would make a great pairing with BlacKkKlansman, as both films parallel each other.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful and heartbreaking story. If you know your history, then the entire film becomes a ticking time-bomb, you’re just waiting for the inevitable, and that ending will stick with you. If you don’t know your history, then you’ll learn so much about one of the greatest revolutionaries and the conspiracy to take him down. An instant classic and a necessary watch for anyone and everyone. (5/5)

The film is available to watch on HBO Max through March 14th.

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