It’s rare for a mainstream Hollywood narrative film to depict community organizing with the honesty and respect it deserves. The real on-the-ground work tends to play second fiddle to big symbolic standoffs with scenery-chewing cartoon villains. Ava DuVernay’s Selma is one of the few films to subvert this narrative by depicting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work as a team effort with countless collaborators, moving parts, and negotiations. Shaka King’s Judas the Black Messiah (out this Friday, February 12, on HBO Max and in theaters) takes it a bit further, putting a Black Panther onscreen and giving him the floor. Unlike other mainstream Civil Rights figures, the Black Panthers have never been accepted in the media as the noble activists that they were. They continue to be referred to as dangerous criminals, despite countless evidence to the contrary. But as Sam Pollard’s recent documentary MLK/FBI revealed earlier this year, that kind of rhetoric was developed and implemented by the FBI and the government that allows it to thrive. Judas and the Black Messiah tells a similar story through a more traditional narrative, showing us a dream as it is systemically snuffed out.
The film tells the story of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the FBI informant who sabotaged the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and helped orchestrate Chairman Fred Hampton’s assassination. O’Neal, a petty thief, is brought in by white FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who presents O’Neal with an offer: go to prison, or infiltrate the Black Panthers so the FBI can keep an eye on their activities. A teenager with few options, O’Neal takes the offer, gets close to Hampton (played in the film by Daniel Kaluuya), and works his way up to being head of security. With his position, O’Neal is able to hand over the floor plan of the Panthers’ headquarters, as well as every detail of their organizing efforts, to the FBI. But the deeper he gets in, the more Mitchell pushes him to do more harm to the movement, which leads to Hampton’s arrest and eventual murder at the hands of Cook County police. In return for his efforts, O’Neal is given a car and various cash payments. These paltry rewards hardly seem worth selling out his people and allowing the FBI to irrevocably harm the progression of both the Civil Rights and socialist movements in Chicago.
For the majority of the film, viewers watch Hampton as he goes around Chicago with the Panthers and gives speeches to mobilize the youth of the city toward Black liberation. It is during one of these speeches that he meets Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who becomes his lover. The cast of Panthers is rounded out by Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Darrell Britt-Gibson (as Chicago chapter co-founder Bobby Rush). One of the major things viewers watch Hampton do is establish The Rainbow Coalition, which joins the Black Panthers with the Latino organization The Young Lords, and the white organization The Young Patriots. Through their shared issues with poverty and over policing in their communities, they are able to find common ground. The film is at its strongest in these scenes, as viewers get to see what real leftist organizing looks like. As Hampton says in the film: “Wherever there’s people, there’s power.”
In Judas and the Black Messiah, the Panthers are humanized, focusing on their work instead of white America’s perception of it. When we see the Panthers together they are sharp, focused and respectful to each other. Everyone is a comrade or has the potential to be one. When we see them walk together as a group, there is an air of dignity that functions without the need for intimidation. Among the actors playing the Panthers, Thorne is a standout, establishing a full character in only a handful of scenes.
The time viewers spend with white characters in the film is minimal. J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and his white supremacist fear-mongering mostly stays on the sidelines of the story. Mitchell acts as his surrogate in many scenes, presenting the illusion of morality within the FBI to placate O’Neal whenever he gets nervous about his assignment. The film makes clear that though O’Neal is definitely in the wrong, the government and the police force are the true evil, creating the conditions for Black people to have so few options in the first place.
As O’Neal, Stanfield was tasked with playing a character with very few redeeming qualities. Throughout the film he gets shakier, reminding us of the impossible nature of his situation. Stanfield gives a committed physical performance during his moments of hesitation. However, he doesn’t fare as well in the scenes where he is pretending to be a Panther. There’s something so transparent about his performance within a performance, it may make viewers wonder how the film would play out if he was more convincing as a revolutionary.
The real star of the film is Kaluuya, whose commanding presence is felt even when he isn’t on screen. He’s believable as a hero of the people — feeding children, teaching classes, and establishing trust within his community. His speeches are compelling and especially resonant in a time when we, as a nation, are pushing the police to be accountable for their racism. What he wanted for Chicago is what we want for ourselves now — an equal opportunity to live and succeed in the world without fear of intimidation, violence and death. Judas and the Black Messiah plays is a to action: if we don’t work together and commit to a revolution, it’s never going to happen. It’s not just about the individual — it’s about all of us. There’s something exhilarating about watching a film portray history in a way that is still achingly relevant today. The organizing that we are seeing now with Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist protests is in the tradition of the Panthers’ work. One can’t help but think that we were given this film now because we’re finally ready to face history as it was, instead of how it’s been told to us over the years.
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave. She can be found on Twitter.
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