Entertainment often serves as an introduction to history.
Film and television that recount important moments and people can shape how audiences understand the past and how they’ll receive legacies moving forward. The Crown‘s recent dramatization of Charles and Diana’s doomed marriage and the tumultuous reign of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher so terrified the British government and aristocracy that they called for Netflix to label the series as “fiction.” While a severe overreaction, it does raise a fair point. Attention spans are at a low ebb, and intellectual curiosity is in battle with social media and a bevy of streaming services offering instantaneous content. Historically-based entertainment isn’t the entry point: it is the point that many viewers will take at face value.
I imagine that Judas and the Black Messiah, streaming this month on HBO Max, will formally introduce Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party to a significant portion of the public. It will perhaps expand upon a basic outline of who the Black Panthers were and their role in the Civil Rights movement that some people, myself included, may have. The film, co-written and directed by Shaka King, explores a specific chapter of the Panthers’ history when the FBI infiltrated the organization through an informant, William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). O’Neal, a young black man arrested trying to steal a car as a fake FBI agent, goes undercover in the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, sidling up to party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) as a chauffeur and then security captain. Through O’Neal’s eyes, we get glimpses of the Panthers’ work in the community, Hampton’s powerful public persona and his budding personal relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), and the FBI’s obsession with “neutralizing” him, in J. Edgar Hoover’s horrific parlance.
I say glimpses because Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t offer the full picture you might expect. Shaka King’s decision to focus on the last stretch of Hampton’s tragically short life was the right one, as it offered the opportunity to dig past the iconography and examine the 21-year old behind it. Unfortunately, King doesn’t take advantage of the limited scope. The film has plenty of well-staged and impactful big-ticket moments: Hampton’s speeches, the Panthers’ tense first official meeting with their perceived rival the Crowns, the standoff with Chicago police that ends in the destruction of their headquarters. We also get to see how the Black Panthers educated and fed the Black community in Chicago, countering past and present accusations that the organization was a destructive force. The film has fewer scenes exploring Hampton’s inner thoughts, feelings, or personal relationships. His relationship with O’Neal, which should be at the film’s core given the premise, suffers the most from the deficiency. We don’t see how O’Neal garnered Hampton’s trust or whether it was easy or difficult. We don’t know if they were close friends or merely acquaintances (although O’Neal’s security captain title suggests he earned significant trust). The lack of emotional and narrative specificity keeps us from truly knowing Hampton, which you would assume is the whole point.
The script’s lack of interiority also harms O’Neal. At the beginning of the film, O’Neal explains to FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) that he is apolitical, which sets the stage for some transformation or rejection of the ideology he was immersing himself in. The film pretty much ignores O’Neal’s politics, focusing instead on his fears of being exposed or getting killed while undercover. Understanding how his politics evolved or stagnated would’ve added weight to the pre-credits revelation that O’Neal committed suicide decades after his time with the Panthers. Instead, O’Neal’s character is left disappointingly opaque. It’s a shame because Judas and the Black Messiah is at its best when it leans into the characters’ humanity rather than their personas. Hampton’s romance with Deborah Johnson is one of the film’s strongest elements, offering a gentler, shier side of Hampton while explaining how their growing relationship, and the impending birth of their son, impact his approach to politics. The characters have a beautiful dynamic that I wish was explored further.
While the character development isn’t robust, there’s no denying the impact of what Shaka King does bring to the screen. Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t wear out its two-hour runtime, thanks to excellent pacing and deft handling of those landmark moments I mentioned earlier. It doesn’t shy away from the terror that Black people faced (and still face) from the government, or the racism and cruelty that infected the government, from the top down (casting Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover was a particularly inspired stunt). At its best, the film’s tension is palpable throughout, as King carefully builds the chronological inevitability of Hampton’s demise. Even though the horrifying and evil result is public record, the intensity of those gunshots is fully realized.
Judas and the Black Messiah relies on its cast to fill in the gaps that the script left on the page. Luckily, they deliver. Daniel Kaluuya’s portrayal of him will undoubtedly transfix those familiar and unfamiliar with Fred Hampton. He imbues his voice and movements with steadfast confidence that is both overwhelming and inviting and doesn’t feel like a caricature. Lakeith Stanfield plays William O’Neal with a subtle air of paranoia, as if he expects that even the slightest false note or move will expose his betrayal. It’s impressive how he keeps those undertones present, even when not in the Panthers’ presence. Of all the performances, Dominique Fishback leaves the longest-lasting impression. Playing Deborah Johnson with a potent mix of vulnerability, intelligence, and steely resolve wrapped in a deceptively mild physicality, Fishback is a revelation, and she nearly runs away with the film on several occasions. Pundits have debated Kaluuya’s awards season chances extensively, but Fishback also deserves to be part of the conversation.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a good starting point in understanding Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers’ role in the civil rights movement. It is a well-made, compelling production with startlingly, frustratingly relevant themes. It also feels like a missed opportunity to bring the revered (and feared) figure back to Earth and give him the chance of understanding that he was brutally robbed of at such a young age. One can only hope that audiences’ education doesn’t stop here, and they seek out more information and the man and his mission.