By Chris Crymes
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
There has been no shortage of narratives on racial injustice over the past year. With the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Atatiana Jefferson and many others at the hands of police and sheriff departments nationwide, artists across the nation have voiced their disgust and resistance to the system at hand. Throughout 2020 artists joined protests to fight the racist actions done by our government and perpetuated by the system. Part of me was looking forward to how filmmakers would tackle the topics of police brutality and racial and financial inequality.
This part of me was disappointed by Aaron Sorkin’s rather trite messaging in “Trial of the Chicago Seven.” While admittedly well shot and well acted, the film’s shallow script and overbearing score made the film feel a bit hollow and too much like every other Sorkin-penned product. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the opposite – a mature, refined film that pushes to educate the ignorant about misunderstood people and organizations and the tragic outcomes that result from injustice.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the story of the betrayal of Fred Hampton, Illinois chapter chairman of the Black Panther Party in the latter half of the 1960s by FBI informant William O’Neal but, like forged police reports, this sentence is all too simple.
William O’Neal was a self-confessed career criminal. After his death in 1990, his uncle told the Chicago Reader his nephew had “been in trouble for everything from car theft and home invasion to kidnapping and torture.” When this life of crime caught up to him, an FBI agent told O’Neal he would look over all these crimes in exchange for inside information on the Black Panthers as an informant. This is where he met and doomed revolutionary Fred Hampton, a man known in his time for negotiating a peace among Chicago’s most powerful street gangs in the name of unity and equality as well as founding the “Rainbow Coalition:” an alliance of the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, Young Patriots Organization, and the Young Lords. Hampton also was integral to community activism. Under his leadership, the Panthers’ institutions like people’s clinics and free breakfast program flourished, soon growing to include morning political education classes for children, more children’s meal programs and community police supervision. The FBI used information on Hampton’s life provided by O’Neal to murder him in the middle of the night in his home, like Breonna Taylor and others. Writer and activist Akua Njeri, known then as Deborah Johnson, was also present at the raid. She was pregnant with Hampton’s son when the police fired over 90 shots into their apartment, frighteningly similar to cases like Taylor’s and Jefferson’s.
Not satisfied to only tell a timely true story, the film masterfully utilizes every cinematic technique to push this message. Framing, direction, color, original score, real-life audio; you name it, “Judas and the Black Messiah” uses it to full effectiveness, but the performances and the direction of the film truly stand out.
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield embody their real-life counterparts, Fred Hampton and Will O’Neal. Kaluuya manages to precisely capture the cadence of not only Hampton’s world-class abilities as an orator, but subtle intricacies of a man who is torn by his devotion to his community and his responsibilities as a man. Stanfield delivers a soulful depiction of a man mentally shredded by self-hate in the name of his own freedom. The film’s lack of outright explanation of O’Neal’s motives for working with the FBI are more than made up by Stanfield’s immense performance.
Most emotionally intense stories like this rely on characters delivering big moments of feeling, which this movie does have plenty of, but “Judas and the Black Messiah’s” characters also breathe beautifully intimate moments. A couple’s first sip of coffee as they steal flirtatious glances at each other. Someone nervously reaching for a cigarette only to remember there are none in their jacket, since they don’t wear this one outside of gatherings. Moments like these create real characters to fill this true story that will stick with a viewer long after the credits roll.
This is Shaka King’s most extensive project by far and it seems this talented filmmaker has hit his creative stride. King and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt utilize framing and lighting to subconsciously implant the film’s message with impressive subtlety. One example that stands out is the usage of levels to convey how people view the person they’re talking to. FBI overseers tower over O’Neal while chastising. They say they are there to help him. Telling him he just has to work with them and they’ll “take care of him” while they impose over him and never offer real help. Hampton and the Black Panthers, on the other hand, immediately get down on O’Neal’s level to communicate with him, even when interrogating or chastising. This is just one example of a film full of framing and lighting tricks that subtly send messages.
If you’re interested in digging deeper into the Black Panther Party and the FBI’s involvement in illegal investigation, catch the premiere on HBO Max.