movie review

Judas and the Black Messiah Is What Happens When Hollywood Co-opts Radical History

The movie gets neither the beauty and complications of Blackness, nor the outright depravity of white supremacy. Photo: Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.

Here’s the truth. To watch footage of Fred Hampton — the Illinois Black Panther Party chairman slain by the twin forces of the FBI and Chicago Police Department in the twilight of 1969, at a mere 21 years old — is to be pulled in by a magnetism as expansive as his radical politics. Whether making speeches or debating with other organizers, Hampton blended an earthen intimacy with the patter of a Baptist preacher. His approach to community organizing was bold, undergirded by a belief in the power and need of cross-racial, cross-cultural solidarity. He was intelligent, able to imagine a necessary socialist future. It’s for this reason that he was a threat to the white-dominated, racist, imperialist power structures that govern this country.

Hampton also had all the complexities that make us human. Yet there was no point while watching Judas and the Black Messiah — the film based on his state-orchestrated murder — when I felt a hint of emotion. I felt no swell of joy at the exceedingly brief moments of Black communion. No warmth watching the thinly developed romance between Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and Deborah (Dominique Fishback), who connect over Malcolm X speeches like “The Ballot or the Bullet. I didn’t even feel horror witnessing the bloody violence wrought by white hands, in service of white supremacy. Judas gets neither the beauty and complications of Blackness, nor does it capture the outright depravity of white supremacy. From the poorly developed performances to the muddled script, this film by co-writer/director Shaka King and producer Ryan Coogler fails the history it seeks to embody.

Judas and the Black Messiah positions itself as the story of a man primed to lose his soul — not Hampton, but Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief posing as an FBI agent to pull confidence games. But the film is never able to show he has a soul in the first place. When O’Neal is caught by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), he is given the option of embedding within the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant instead of going to jail. O’Neal is our window into the world and history that Judas is aching to inhabit, and the film splits its focus between his life and Hampton’s — while never wholly developing the concerns or interiority of either.

O’Neal was a living, breathing person, and this version of him is too poorly drawn of a character to operate as a frame for this history, lacking the internal intricacies that make us human. In his first meeting with Agent Mitchell, nary ten minutes into the film, Bill is all nerves. Bleeding from his brow, he whispers instead of speaking, stumbling over his words. Stanfield plays the character with a trembling manic energy, an approach that is arguably somewhat appropriate in this scene but comes to define, and hobble, his performance throughout the film. His energy and random tics — sudden tears, an off-kilter laugh cutting through a serious scene — feel disconnected from any understanding of the character.

It’s also important to note that casting older actors in the main roles sands off some of the prickly, depressing edges of this story. O’Neal was only about 17 when he was recruited by the FBI, and 20 when his actions led to the murder of 21-year-old Hampton; Stanfield and Kaluuya are 29 and 31, respectively. How much more impactful could the film be if the actors were closer to the ages of the men they’re playing, allowing the utter tragedy of this dynamic to shine through?

The larger issue with Stanfield’s portrayal of O’Neal is that there is no real character to understand, and that is as much due to acting choices as it is to the script as a whole. What does Bill truly want? In Bill’s first scene with Agent Mitchell, the filmmakers underscore the character’s political apathy. When he’s asked about his feelings on the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Bill replies, “I ain’t ever thought about all that.” But the film never shows us what the character does think about, what drives him, what his lack of political understanding means within this landscape where politics are everything. And while I’ve enjoyed his work elsewhere — particularly in the FX series Atlanta — Stanfield isn’t a strong enough actor to suggest depths that the script didn’t consider. The most interesting glimpse into the character isn’t in the film itself but in its belabored coda, which features real footage of O’Neal from the 1990 docuseries Eyes on the Prize. In it, he is asked what he would tell his son about his actions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “I was part of the struggle,” he replies. “I wasn’t one of those armchair revolutionaries … at least I had a point of view [and] put it on the line.” Where was that complication and contradiction in the film?

Judas’s world lacks the specificity necessary to make history feel lived-in and authentic. The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt is broadly handsome but inert. The images of fists raised in the air are devoid of that incendiary thrill you feel from the archival footage that opens and closes its film (some of which was taken from Agnès Varda’s beautifully trenchant 1968 documentary Black Panthers). Violence is treated matter-of-factly, to the point of austerity — especially in its climax, where the portrayal of Hampton’s death takes visual cues from gangster epics. On the whole, the film, which is set in Chicago, feels like it could have taken place anywhere in America. Yes, Hampton mentions Chicago mayor Richard Daley in passing and calls the city “the most segregated … in America.” But there is no sense of what Chicago — the place that forged Hampton — is actually like. Its rhythms and particulars are nowhere to be seen.

Chicago and its suburbs, with its strict racial divides, are crucial to understanding who Hampton was and what drove him. Hampton attended Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois, where he was elected to an interracial council that handled racial tensions that arose in the school. Even after graduating, the school’s principal asked him to come back to handle growing issues along the lines of race among the student body. There he demonstrated his skills in listening as well as an expansive perspective on possible futures and the importance of community, all of which fueled his activism. (After his murder, the tumult between the white and Black students of the school would grow so fiery, the administrators had to cancel classes for several weeks.) Hampton set up a Black cultural center in Maywood. He studied the speeches of Malcolm X, as the film outlines. He also read Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara, and felt communion with leftist struggles beyond the borders of the United States.

“Fred’s evolution cannot be separated from the political events and movements around him,” writes lawyer Jeffrey Haas — who previously represented the Black Panther Party through Chicago’s People’s Law Office and fought for material justice in the wake of Hampton’s death — in his 2009 book The Assassination of Fred Hampton. He points to events such as the 1964 Public accommodations Act and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that “did nothing to change the conditions of Blacks in ghettos outside the South.” In Judas, we never get a proper display of the community dynamics that motivated Hampton. We never fully learn the depth of his politics, and that undercuts the potential of the film as a whole.

Ultimately, Kaluuya’s Hampton reads as a blustering showman more than a preacher-poet. In a scene following Hampton’s release from Menard Prison, the camera follows Kaluuya from behind as he walks up the staircase to enter into an auditorium with a rapturous crowd chanting “Chairman Fred.” Kaluuya’s steps have a heaviness to them. He stoically stands onstage before the crowd, surveying what’s ahead of him, before smiling and declaring, “I’m free.” He tells the crowd to repeat after him: “I am a revolutionary.” His performance consists mostly of these kinds of speeches. This gives his character a stilted quality, a bundle of poorly portrayed political ideas rather than an actual human being. To understand Hampton is to understand his actions and humanity, not just his loftiest speeches.

And yet the film whittles down some of Hampton’s most important work to little more than a montage: his spearheading of the Rainbow Coalition, a movement that brought together the Panthers, the Young Patriots Organization — which comprised mostly white, leftist Appalachians who had migrated to Chicago — and the Young Lords, a Latinx gang turned human rights organization that critiqued police brutality and fought for the self-determination of Puerto Ricans and other Latinx communities. This cross-cultural and cross-racial solidarity was powerfully motivating, and richly comprehensive to the ways we imagine our communities. It’s galling that the film spends so little time on it. Judas didn’t need to be a history lesson. No film should or perhaps even can be. But it never gives Hampton’s legacy the proper detail, context, or weight.

The civil-rights leaders of yore were titans: charismatic and forceful, intelligent and righteously determined. In the years since Hampton’s death, pop culture has mined the Black Panthers for their posture and aesthetic. Consider Beyoncé’s appropriation, for her 2016 Formation world tour, of the famous image of Huey P. Newton sitting in a rattan throne, one hand holding a shotgun, the other a spear, as he stares defiantly at the camera. She also adopted the aesthetics of berets and all-black for her Super Bowl performance that year. Judas feels like an extension of the same idea: deploying the Panthers as symbols rather than people. The only things I felt as the credits rolled were a profound sense of disappointment and a frustrated queasiness at what happens when the industry seeks to adopt an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, undeniably radical figure such as Hampton. Hollywood is more of a capitalist enterprise than it is a haven for artists. What it can’t co-opt, it discards.

*A version of this article appears in the February 15, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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Judas and the Black Messiah: Hollywood Coopts a Radical Past