“A badge is scarier than a gun,” asserts the bloody-faced car thief to the unphased FBI agent in an early scene of Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Before the viewer gets any chance to hope for the future of this young William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) that sits in front of agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), an ultimatum to the former is delivered and taken: He may evade his jail sentence by joining the Illinois Black Panther Party as an informant to aid in the plot to destroy the life and legacy of Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
While audiences might find it conflicting to be introduced to the often untaught history of Hampton’s 1969 assassination through the protagonizing of his traitor, O’Neal’s moral questionability functions as an unexpectedly perfect entry point for the film’s philosophies to suffuse into its viewers’ consciousness. O’Neal’s agreement to betray Hampton paints him as an immature self-server who embodies capitalism on both ends of exploitation — he is an uncomfortably relatable persona in comparison to Hampton, whose dedication to his community in the form of a free breakfast program and medical clinic, as seen in the film, is remarkable beyond his 21-year life experience.
Although O’Neal’s undeniable flaws make him a more relatable character, Kaluuya’s Hampton manages to merge heroic bravado with a bashful sensitivity that surprises viewers. In his intimate scenes with Comrade Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), Kaluuya discloses that behind Hampton’s skilled stage presence he is simply a regular human, just beginning to navigate life and love.
Besides the romance between Hampton and Johnson, the film’s subplots give no emotional relief to the main storyline that is O’Neal’s downward spiral. Between the shooting of comrade Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders) by police for talking back to authority in a store, and the tragic murder of comrade Jake Winters (Algee Smith) after his defending himself against an officer, King extorts as much realism as possible from the film’s supporting characters, painting a realistically dismal picture of the relationship between Blackness and police in America.
For a film that carries the heavy burden of prioritizing such accuracy in its representation of 1960s Chicago, the simultaneous attention to style and videography is surprisingly adept. The viewer can’t help but admire the striking shots of O’Neal in his lavish car, even as Stanfield performs a stomach-churning seesaw of cockiness and panic while driving it. New clothes and snazzy sunglasses are a few of the other material goods that O’Neal earns from his cooperation with the outwardly-liberal but internally-racist Mitchell, but the thrill of his winnings evanesces when the latter eventually reminds us that Judas’ work in the party won’t end until Hampton is officially dead.
This dance of intimidation between Mitchell and O’Neal is at its most tense in the scene when O’Neal stands by Hampton as he orates to a crowd of revolutionaries, “I’m going to die high off the people, because I live for the people.” O’Neal makes eye contact with Mitchell across the room, who raises his fist in false allegiance with the Black crowd, epitomizing in a single gesture the wickedness that it is to claim alliance with the Black community while being a policeman.
O’Neal’s final night as Judas yields Stanfield’s most excruciating performance of remorse when he quiveringly offers the chairman a drink that is meant to sedate him during the raid of his apartment. When this fateful raid arrives, however, it is not even the sleeping Hampton that devastates — it is the image of a close-up Fishback that shatters viewers’ hearts. When the police fire into her character’s husband, she doesn’t even flinch — an astounding portrayal of trauma through numbness.
The film closes with a clip of the real-life Judas, William O’Neal himself, in his 1990 PBS interview, nervously attempting to convince both the camera and himself that his actions were justifiable. In some ways, this editing allows for the real-life O’Neal to be summarized as a tragic pawn rather than a backstabbing Judas. However, this nuance of O’Neal’s legacy doesn’t soften the film’s emphasis on his crimes against a rising Black Messiah. Rather, it demands us to zoom in on the line between self-preservation and revolution that divides many of us from being promoters of human rights today.
Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming now on HBO Max.