DISCLAIMER: I didn't see this film in a theater. I watched it with my HBO Max subscription. I highly recommend you don't go see it in a theater even if it is playing near you. That's too risky with all the virus cases across the U.S. and the world. Stay safe!
Judas and the Black Messiah is about the FBI's intent to undermine and dissolve the Illinois Black Panther Party and rid themselves of its charismatic leader Chairman Fred Hampton. The feds plant Bill O'Neal in the organization as an informant, getting him to divulge the locations of meetings and the movements and whereabouts of Hampton. The film follows Bill and Fred as they intertwine in the events that lead to the dramatic assassination of Hampton by the combined forces of the FBI and Chicago police department. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Martin Sheen. The film is directed by Shaka King and written by King and Will Berson with a story by King, Berson, and Kenneth and Keith Lucas. The film is streaming exclusively on HBO Max for the next thirty days.
Most modern biopics focus on a seminal event in a person's life rather than the breadth of that person's life. In this way they are supposed to have less of a highlight reel quality to them and more of a snapshot into who they were, are, in the present of the film, and who they will become in the future beyond the film, if there is a future. In Judas and the Black Messiah of course, there is no future beyond the events of the film for Fred Hampton, only his legacy. Yet, even with this tight focus, the film still feels like a highlight reel.
We are given snippets of what Fred Hampton and the Illinois Black Panthers were able to accomplish. The breakfast and outreach for kids in the community and the forming of the rainbow coalition by uniting against a common foe are chiefly among them. Yet, despite the trappings of it and a few intimate scenes between Hampton and his girlfriend Deborah Johnson, this isn't a biopic about Hampton so much as a biopic about his titular Judas.
More is learned about Bill O'Neal than Fred Hampton. Neither character is completely fleshed out, but the driving force of this story is O'Neal and his nebulous motivations. I kept trying to figure O'Neal out, his nuances and thoughts, but there was little there to give us a complex version of why he may have done what he did. At different points he seems motivated by greed, he always has an eye out for the next score. Then there's the possible motivation of the conviction for grand theft auto and impersonating a federal officer. Yet again, he could be continuing his informing for the fact that if he's found informing, the Panther's justice will be swift and merciless.
This shifting motivation led to some even more nebulous scenes in which we are treated to the inner workings of the FBI investigation. I kept wondering why we are treated to so many scenes of the oppressor's evil and not more scenes of the oppressed's struggle. I'm still baffled by the point of a scene in which J. Edgar Hoover is attempting to discern where Agent Roy Mitchell's racial loyalties lie. A scene slightly mirrored in one of Mitchell's meetings with O'Neal where he questions whether or not O'Neal believes in the Black Panther cause. Yet there's no meaning to these scenes because there is so little development of these characters as humans.
That's what this film lacks for me, is life, a human life. There's a lot of great speeches, tense action and a great cast, but all of those elements couldn't make me feel more strongly or move me toward an emotional response. I wish the film had focused more on Fred Hampton, the man. His private thoughts, ideas, fears and loves would make for an interesting narrative. Instead Judas and the Black Messiah focuses on one of the men who brought him down for reasons that the film never makes clear. I would have even liked the development and conflict within Bill O'Neal, maybe making Hampton a background character, but we barely get that, we just have a hollow telling of some events.
I still recommend you watch the film if you've never heard of Fred Hampton or if you've only heard the name and the fate and never knew how he pushed the powers that be for people. I also recommend you watch the film if you've ever thought that the Black Panther Party was a terrorist organization that fought for Black supremacy. Then I want you to watch Agnès Varda's short documentary, Black Panthers, which is the unfiltered truth from the mouths of the men and women in the movement.