Sundance Kicks Off Black History Month with Real Black History in Judas and the Black Messiah
Film: Judas and the Black Messiah
Director: Shaka King
Category: Feature – Premieres
Never in my life did I think that I would see a mainstream studio like Warner Brothers back a film about Black Panther leader Chairman Fred Hampton, but here we are. Judas and the Black Messiah is such an important film, and to have the opportunity to see the world premiere of this film at Sundance was incredible. Everything about this film is of the highest quality, the cast owns their roles, and Shaka King’s vision and perspective are so apparent.
Quick history lesson for context: Fred Hampton was the Chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party in the late 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. Hampton was an incredible orator and was in the process of uniting racial justice groups across Chicago to form the multiracial Rainbow Coalition to fight for equal rights and fair treatment of people in poverty and BIPOC communities. In the midst of his efforts, he was assassinated by an FBI informant and the Chicago Police Department at the age of 21. The Black Panther Party has so often been disparaged in the mainstream history taught in U.S. public schools that this depiction of what the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton really did blow me away. To have a film that shows that the Black Panther Party for its best efforts, to bring marginalized people together, to feed schoolchildren free breakfast, to build medical clinics and give healthcare to their people, to show all that matters. These are things we’re talking about to this day, fighting for racial equality, stopping police brutality, ending childhood poverty, providing free healthcare to everyone, the Panthers were doing these things 50 years ago. Real Black History matters, and to have this film released as the largest racial justice and equality movements since the Civil Rights Movement have been happening throughout the last year matters. This film is obviously dramatized, it’s not exact history, but it shines a light on a part of Black History that has been ignored and erased from the mainstream that people need to see.
Off my historical soapbox, this film is a powerhouse. Detailing the events leading up to Hampton’s assassination, it starts with introducing William O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You), the man who became an FBI informant to feed information about the Black Panther Party and Chairman Fred Hampton to the FBI. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, The Irishman) is O’Neil’s handler and does a hell of a job convincing O’Neil that he’s on the right side. Throughout the film, we see O’Neil struggle with this and the struggle gets worse and worse. From justifying himself saving his own skin to fully blaming others and lying about his FBI involvement, so much of the tension in the film is waiting to see if O’Neil ever gets caught (History lesson: he never does, but it also leaves him racked with guilt).
The film’s most emotional moments are between Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out) and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, Project Power). The two meet at one of Hampton’s appearances to get people to join the Panthers, and a few months later, Johnson having been moved by Hampton’s words joins the Party as his speechwriter. Their relationship grows, Johnson becomes pregnant with their child, and it forces her to question how she can continue to the work without giving her life as so many of their compatriots fall around them in a violent situation. The Party’s headquarters is bombed by police, multiple members are killed by police in shootouts around their neighborhood, and as important as the work is, how can she be safe to live for their child. The film wants you to consider all sides and all perspectives of each character.
The two most powerful moments in this film come late in the game. When Hampton is released from prison, he returns and gives an incredibly powerful speech to the community. You’ve likely seen the clip in the trailer, “I am a revolutionary,” repeated over with the crowd. Daniel Kaluuya completely embodies the role of Hampton in this moment, the energy is real, you believe what he’s saying, which I can’t imagine being much different than getting to see the actual Fred Hampton speak, it is chilling.
The next most powerful moments are the film’s ending. Seeing Stanfield’s performance as William O’Neil is dizzying, you can feel the tension and pressure and internal conflict as he slips a drug to Hampton to complete the FBI’s bidding of assassinating Hampton. However, this fails. The following sequence is the Chicago Police breaking into the house that Hampton and his followers are staying in, shooting nearly 100 times blindly at anyone that is in the room, then finally going into the room where Hampton is unconscious and murdering him. This whole sequence is so similar to how Breonna Taylor was killed, police not giving any time to respond before blindly shooting into the house, the occupants of the house being arrested for trying to defend themselves from unidentified assailants, leaving those who were injured bleeding out with no medical assistance, and the complete lack of justice those people, including Deborah Johnson, experienced. (History lesson: Johnson filed a civil lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department, Illinois State Attorney’s office, and the FBI for conspiring to kill Hampton for $47 million. It was one of the longest civil lawsuits in U.S. history, lasting 12 years and ultimately being settled for an extremely small fraction of the initial suit.) It feels like a 50-year-old mirror of what happened to Breonna Taylor, Kenneth Walker, and their family last year. Real-life parallels aside, I cannot leave this review without a note of how jaw-droppingly powerful Dominique Fishback is in the film’s final moments. In the Q&A (linked below), she mentions how mentally strenuous filming those scenes were for her, and you can see all of it, all that raw emotion is so real and apparent from her.
Judas and the Black Messiah is *the* must-watch film from Sundance 2021, you have to see this movie. The performances are a masterclass in acting, the story brings to light an important moment in history, the writers crafted such complex and detailed characterizations of these real people. This film provides a dramatic lens into history that parallels things we are still seeing today, emphasizing how important it is to carry on the work for racial justice and equality. I cannot recommend highly enough watching Judas and the Black Messiah while it’s on HBO Max for the next month.
Review Score: 5/5
Where Can You Watch: Judas and the Black Messiah is out in theaters now and available to stream on HBO Max now through March 14th.
Bonus Content: Check out the Q&A with director Shaka King, cast members Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback, and Lakeith Stanfield, and current chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party Cubs Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr. on the Sundance Film Festival Youtube channel. If you have 30 minutes to watch this after seeing Judas and the Black Messiah, please do. These creators put so much honesty and effort into this film, getting to hear them speak on their work is powerful. Watch here