Arts movie review

A moving undercover thriller based on true events

An interview with the cast of ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ a film that is more relevant now than ever

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Lakeith Stanfield (left) and Jesse Plemons (right) star in Shaka King's latest film, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah.’
Warner Bros. Pictures

Judas and the Black Messiah
Directed by Shaka King
Screenplay by Shaka King, Will Berson
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
Rated R
Streaming on HBO Max on Feb. 12

“Power anywhere where there’s people!” These inspiring words from the charismatic Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) leave us rooting for a group that would go down in history: the Black Panther Party. Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Fred Hampton — the Black Messiah — who leads the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) — Judas — who infiltrates the Black Panther Party as a counterintelligence operative on the orders of FBI. 

The movie begins with a few clips from the Eyes on the Prize interview with William O’Neal regarding his infiltration of the Black Panther Party, which was a Black Power political organization. The film then brings us back in time to trace the moments that started it all. After driving a stolen car, O’Neal is arrested and given an ultimatum by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons): face several years in jail or keep tabs on Fred Hampton and the Panthers’ activities for the FBI. O’Neal makes the first of many bad choices by choosing to be an FBI informant, thus betraying the trust of his community.

While the film’s plot is based on true events, director Shaka King creatively portrays the story as an undercover thriller rather than the stereotypical biographical movie. The film is more than the meeting of two characters as the title suggests, with suspenseful storytelling that constantly leaves the audience short of breath in anticipation of what will happen next. 

There weren’t many historical resources available to inform the cast of the movie about Fred Hampton, and the most authentic references were his wife, Mother Akua — formerly known as Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) — and his son, Fred Jr. Kaluuya and Fishback traveled to Chicago and spent time with them to learn more about Fred Hampton and the Panthers’ activities.

In a college roundtable interview, Fishback talked about how her interaction with Mother Akua inspired her interpretation of the character, “[She] told us that the Panthers were very disciplined and never spoke out of turn. I did not understand this initially. We left our space so open that the energy flowed through us in a way that I learned to trust Daniel and others in a different way.” She explains, “I learned that when you’re able to trust, you’re not so defensive and on guard, and when you’re not on guard, you don’t have to speak with a certain anger. So, I could see the gentleness in why she would feel so open to let him in.” 

Although the film provides a glimpse into Fred Hampton’s life, the details of the Black Panther movement expand much beyond what is shown. Talking about the events that did not make it into the movie, Kaluuya says “There’s incredible stuff that happens on a street level with the Black Panther Party. It will not end well for anyone involved if I say it on a Zoom call. All those details about understanding what Chairman Fred did on the frontline, how he united certain forces was incredible.” Kaluuya continues, “The Rainbow Coalition was a product of what he really did in creating the Black Union. Those kinds of factors and stories really resonate with me.”

The role of O’Neal as an FBI informant was characterized by conflicting emotions, and Stanfield brilliantly portrayed this inner turmoil. After his actions have been revealed, O’Neal is asked what he would tell his son about his actions. He responds with a quiet power by saying that he’ll let history speak for him. The actor himself reflected on O’Neal’s actions, saying, “Although, I find a lot of things he did reprehensible on the surface level, I realized that most people would not like to be imprisoned for five years and would have taken the easier route if given a chance. Out of a million people, there are two people like Fred Hampton while the rest are like O’Neal. Most of this can identify with wanting to secure our own selves and people rather than appeal to the general public.”

In addition to the excellent performances and still relevant themes, the set design of the film does a great job taking us back to the 1960’s. Further setting the tone for the film, the score of Judas and the Black Messiah, composed by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, includes both period songs and suspenseful music. This movie is sure to strike a chord with all of us while creating more awareness about the sacrifices made in the past. As Fred says, “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution.” 

The Illinois chapter is the most progressive of the Black Panther Party where more women are placed in positions of power than other chapters. Thorne, who played Judy Harmon, the security captain of the Illinois chapter, studied extensively about the Panthers in preparation for her role. During the roundtable, Thorne reflected on women’s power in today’s world: “The primary change that I see is in understanding the fact that women will be placed in positions of power. Period. This is not negotiable. It’s something that is necessary and needs to be far more commonplace than it is. And I think there is a shift in recognition of that - in seeing that women will not accept anything less. Not only are we fully cognizant of what we deserve, but I also think that there is a collective movement toward the actualization of those roles.” She continued, “Regarding what needs to further change, it’s based a lot in equity and accepting where we are so that we can move up to where we should be rather than making attempts of surface level presentations of balance and equality.”

The interview has been edited and cut for clarity and length.