Judas and the Black Messiah
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Martin Sheen
Written by Will Berson and Shaka King
Directed by Shaka King
Rated: 14A for coarse language, violence and substance use
Runtime: 125 minutes
Available for rental via premium video on demand on participating digital platforms where you rent movies for $24.99 beginning on Friday, Feb. 12.
There are many reasons why it's important for more Black films to be made in Hollywood and shown to the world, not the least of which is that they have been missing from cinema, which has been historically run by white people. The lack of Black stories has meant that there has been – and still is – a colossal vacuum that is slow to fill. Without Black films and Black voices, no one can truly know our world.
The fact that many of these stories tell of important cultural and historical figures during key moments in world events is another important reason to be certain, but some of the revelations that come out of these retellings should offer the world both the chance to reflect on past injustices and the current state of affairs in equal measures. For instance, the new Shaka King movie Judas and the Black Messiah opened my eyes to a part of the American Civil Rights Movement that I had never heard before.
Now, I'm a white kid from St. Albert but I've always known about the Black Panthers. Though I'm only just now getting to hear the story about Fred Hampton, what caused him to stand up to fight for Black rights, and what the circumstances were in the late 1960s leading up to his death.
It all starts with William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) who gets caught impersonating an FBI agent while stealing a car. The theft meant a year in jail, but the fraud meant five more, at least it would have meant that if he didn't take a deal to avoid it. Instead, he is persuaded by the real FBI to become a mole in the Illinois Black Panther Party.
His prime target is Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the young and outspoken leader who FBI head J. Edgar Hoover called a threat to national security. Hampton's rallies for fighting capitalism with socialism do much to raise his standing as that perceived threat, but when you see the injustices perpetrated by the Chicago Police and look deeper into the corrupt actions of the FBI, you can't help but think that Hampton and the Black Panthers had more than enough reasons to desire change.
What we see is O'Neal being duped into becoming a spy by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), doing the dirty work of the government agency itself. O'Neal starts off as a willing participant – he would have gone to jail otherwise, remember? – but the stakes and the risks keep getting higher and higher, leading him to want out before he gets killed. More and more, he sees the FBI in a different, darker light though their persuasive methods keep him in the game, all leading to Hampton's murder.
As disheartening it is to learn of such injustices, at least it gives a white kid like me the chance to reflect on Black Lives Matter, why it started, why it's important and how much work still has to be done.
As for the movie, it's a compelling biopic with some truly great actors in the leads. Kaluuya brings vulnerability and intensity to any role I've ever seen him in, elevating the entire enterprise, and Stanfield is remarkable in how he shows his character's arc. We feel for O'Neal too, as we should, even though he plays a major role in Hampton's murder. O'Neal has a story too, and it deserves to be learned through this movie and perhaps others.