Right from the start, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH hits hard and fast. There’s dramatic speeches, bloody violence, deep friendship, and growing love. And through all that, the threat of tragedy looms large. Although the title gives away the ending – this is a story of betrayal – the final scenes are a gut punch.
The film follows the Black Panthers in Chicago in the late 1960s. A Black American political organisation, it completely terrifies the FBI, who fear one of their leaders could become a ‘Black Messiah’. Such a leader would be able to unite groups of poor people all across America.
Fortunately for the FBI, William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield) commits a very serious (and very entertaining) crime right away. And in order to avoid jail, he agrees to infiltrate and inform on the Black Panthers. So, he’s our Judas. His FBI handler (Jesse Plemons) tells him to pay special attention to Chairman Fred Hampton, a possible Black Messiah.
Fred Hampton has been busy, building the revolution. Like he tells his comrades, ‘where there’s people, there’s power’. He’s healing hurts and making people think of what might be possible if they stop fighting each other, and fight together for a common goal. He calls it ‘The Rainbow Coalition’, and it’s something to behold.
His partner and fellow Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) was right, when she told him he wasn’t just a revolutionary, he was also a poet.
This seems a lot to fit in a film that runs for two hours and six minutes. But it really does an excellent job of explaining itself. The first few scenes make your head spin, but it reflects the way William ‘Judas’ O’Neil feels. He’s not a happy man: he’s apathetic, and he lives for himself. But he’s thrown into a group of devoted revolutionaries, all making enormous sacrifices for the people around them. He survives day by day, but the Panthers have long term plans. He admires them, but they will absolutely torture and kill him is they ever find out he’s a rat. It’s confusing for him, so it’s confusing for us.
The film is a gorgeous celebration of Black American English. Not just its power, but also its complexity. The FBI look ridiculous trying to write it. But when Hampton practices, it’s by memorising the words of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. And when he speaks, when you see the crowds hanging on his every word…
You wonder what might have happened in the world if he had lived past the young age of only 21.
Regardless of what you know going into the film, you’ll come home and Google for more. The film perfectly captures in its time period, with hairstyles and fashion that are pure 1969. And it revels its setting of Chicago as a revolutionary tinder box. But filled with so much frustration, tension, and even hope, it remains relevant and meaningful to this day.