The trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah made me doubt how effective the film would actually be. Not because it looked bad, mind you, or uninteresting in any way. But I had flashes to Man of Steel, which lured me to the cinema with a stunning trailer and then turned out to be a soupy mess. Same for Only God Forgives, which had a bangin’ trailer — I remember saying the words “looks amazing” to a friend — and ultimately had about as much substance as the two-minute teaser itself. Well, fool me twice. Trepidation filled the air as the Sundance premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah began, because the first glimpse I’d had of the film was this rollicking hype-train of a masterful trailer:
Shaka King’s first major studio feature, thankfully, is indeed a strong and energetic biopic that doesn’t at all renege on the promise of that trailer. Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and focuses on FBI efforts to suppress and ultimately silence Hampton as he gains more and more popularity nationwide. It’s a long overdue portrayal of a significant figure in American history; before Kelvin Harrison, Jr. played Hampton in a bit part in this past year’s Trail of the Chicago 7, you have to go back to 1999 to find the only other instance of Hampton in another film or TV show (it’s another bit part in the miniseries The ’60s, which is mostly about hippies).
Judas and the Black Messiah was, however, a slightly different experience than expected, due not to false advertising but to the fact that no trailer can really capture the -ness of a particular film. Kaluuya’s bombastic Hampton is rightfully the driving force here, but Messiah‘s real heart comes from its Judas: Lakeith Stanfield, giving an all-out performance as FBI informant William O’Neal. As a mole inside Hampton’s Chicago chapter of the Panthers, O’Neal reports back to the FBI for a long enough period of time that the pivotal role he played in Hampton’s assassination can hardly be denied. But Stanfield doesn’t play O’Neal as a witless pawn of J. Edgar Hoover, nor is he staunchly convinced that he actually has the moral high ground over the Panther movement. O’Neal is a character conflicted down to his bones, and Stanfield steals the film by instilling that conflict into even the smallest of moments.
To be fair, that trailer is “accurate” in an altogether different sense. If you did know Fred Hampton prior to Messiah, you likely knew his speeches, and the “You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution!” part of Messiah‘s marketing underscores how Hampton’s words inspired others. But the actual film dives into a side of the Black Panther movement we hardly ever see, inundated with a perception of this as a solely militant organization. We’re used to gawking at the anger and frustration of the movement, but aside from Agnès Varda’s 28-minute documentary Black Panthers, Messiah is one of the only depictions of the movement’s genuine purpose. Yes, the protests and speeches are here, and yes, violence occurs. But the community organizing, the outreach to other organizations in search of a better America, the close-knit family — figurative and literal — borne of shared struggle…these are the things that give O’Neal pause, and give us a richer sense of what the Panther movement was all about.
Back to O’Neal for a moment. Shaka King explicitly used the template of The Departed as a “clever vessel” to bring this story to light, which lines Stanfield’s O’Neal up with the Leonardo DiCaprio character from that film. The exciting moments for such a character are when they’re about to be caught in a lie, and this happens frequently in both instances. O’Neal wriggles out of hot spots again and again, and the thrill of how’s he gonna get out of THIS one? never really gets old. But we never doubt that DiCaprio is anything but a mole, nor is he ever conflicted about the reasons for his mission. O’Neal, conversely, seems to believe it both ways. He insists that he’s a participant in the struggle, and we really believe him when he says “power to the people;” but it simultaneously can’t be true as O’Neal hands a blueprint of Hampton’s apartment over to the FBI.
Again, Stanfield knocks this paradoxical duality out of the park. In the post-screening Sundance Q&A, the actor noted that archival footage of O’Neal showed his using “we” and “us” interchangeably when speaking of both the FBI and the Black Panthers. It’s a fascinating contradiction, to believe yourself a full and present supporter of two causes that are utterly opposed. As a black man in America, O’Neal invariably is a part of the struggle. What Messiah explores is whether he turned his back on that struggle in his betrayal of Fred Hampton, whether pressure from the FBI fueled his sense of self-preservation such that “power to the people” became “power to the person.”
In a perfect world, Judas and the Black Messiah would do gangbusters at the box office and launch a career for Shaka King and awards campaigns for both Stanfield and Kaluuya. The film itself, of course, depicts the actual far-from-perfect world we live in, and so it goes: the Sundance premiere didn’t result in the bidding war many expected, and the vast majority of those who see the film will do so on HBO Max when it premieres on February 12th. Daniel Kaluuya even faced the same backlash he faced for Get Out from those who say the role of Hampton should have gone to an American actor. “It’s not about me,” asserted Kaluuya. That sentiment is embodied by Judas and the Black Messiah, an experience that is many things but foremostly a film about the people.