Admitting you don’t know something is hard. Especially at a time when so much information is readily available. Admitting your ignorance can make you feel left out in the pseudo-intellectual landscape of social media. An environment that often rewards you for pretending to know what you really want to know or learn. But it’s the awareness (and subsequent learning) of what you don’t know that I find far more powerful. I say all this as an introduction to a somewhat embarrassing confession, especially as a history teacher. Returning to director Shaq King’s new film, Judas and the Black Messiah, I knew little about President Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party.

My ignorance is more due to misinformation caused by a lack of black role models or a failure of public education. My knowledge of the Black Panthers was limited to a misrepresentation of the organization made by whites. As the incredibly problematic saying goes: History is written by the victors. In the case of President Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party, they have been almost completely erased from our history. This is no different than many other important groups and individuals who dare to question the American concept of democracy and equality. This is Judas and the Black Messiah, a film that, more than any other film I can remember, reinvents an important historical figure and/or group.

History Course

Judas and the Black Messiah is less a biopic or crime drama than a history lesson. Not so much a documentary, but it redefines the Black Panthers in a similar way. Shaka King, who shares the writing and story with Will Benson, Kenneth Lucas and Keith Lucas, builds this story around a simple concept. A small-time car thief, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), becomes an FBI informant and infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. His infiltration into the party gives him access to the ins and outs of the party and to President Fred Hampton himself. This way of structuring the story allows it to follow a familiar style while effectively showing what the Black Panther Party is really about.

William O’Neil takes us behind the guns, leather jackets and afros that have long defined the organization and shows us a hands-on approach to their community. We attend meetings led by President Fred Hampton to form his Rainbow Coalition. We even see the party wrestling while the president is in jail. This is how the redefinition I keep talking about comes about.

Shaka King shows us what the Black Panther Party is really about by showing us her actions, her platform, and the meaning behind everything she does. It does not position the party in a way that leads us to any particular conclusion. He just presents them as they really are, so we can draw our own conclusions. Thus, the film also provides space for conversations about socialism versus capitalism, civil rights, and police brutality. The holistic presentation of the Black Panther Party redefines its history and takes a look at our future.

Warner Brothers Pictures

Cancellation of Fred Hampton

This change in thinking goes beyond the party and beyond President Fred Hampton himself. A true revolutionary and American hero who was tragically erased from history. Judas and the Black Messiah is as much a presidential film as anything else. Daniel Kaluuya brings President Fred Hampton to life in a performance that has no adjective to describe his genius. We see the leader of a revolutionary movement, a larger than life character, a gentle lover. We also get to see a unique man who can speak to all peoples and inspire them to pursue revolutionary change. Kaluuya captured everything perfectly. It does for Fred Hampton what Will Smith did for Muhammad Ali and Denzel Washington did for Malcolm X. It extends his legacy to future generations.

Kaluuya succeeds by embodying its complexity and essence to perfection. While his impassioned speeches and magnetic charisma are a (very memorable) facet of his personality, the depth and fullness of his character is expressed in quieter moments. The sweet moments between him and Deborah Johnson (played beautifully by Dominic Fishback), add a tender side that is easily lost on characters of this magnitude. His level-headed and thoughtful presence when addressing someone in a room or meeting makes him a respected person.

Kaluuya brings him to life with subtle facial expressions and physical strength, showing that he can control space. It is also the thoughtfulness of someone who really wants to listen to what others have to say. This is just to say that this is Kaluuya’s best work. Simply because what he does in this film is so much more important. By understanding who Fred Hampton was, he gets back a beautiful legacy that was largely taken away from him.

Shaka King finds depth

Judas and the Black Messiah is more than just a historical document about the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton. It’s a film about the complexities of being black, in general, but in particular, at that time in America. William O’Neil is not an unknown character in a story like this, but he is unique in his performance here. He seemed to gloat and he certainly doesn’t hate the president. He’s just a black man struggling to survive and the FBI comes to his aid during a horrific event. Stanfield brings a lot of finesse to this character, creating nuance and even a little empathy. His awful situation says more about the lack of character of the poor black man in this country than it does about his character.

Shaka King manages to accomplish this difficult balancing act throughout the film. He does this while reserving judgment on the themes of the film. This allows them to become characters in their own right, providing nuance. In O’Neill’s case, it’s also a great performance by Stanfield. There is no doubt that his involvement in the murder of Fred Hampton was a bad thing. But you come out of this with more contempt for the FBI than you have for O’Neill. This exploration of the complexity of the civil rights movement is also reflected in the character of Deborah Johnson. The typical female character is taken to a new level with the portrayal of Dominic Fishback. A revolutionary, to be sure, but one who thinks more and more about her tactics the closer she gets to Fred Hampton.

More than a biopic

These two characters show the complexities of being black in America, especially during the civil rights movement. This extra layer elevates the entire film into something much more than a simple biopic. Judas and the Black Messiah is a great film about the modern revolution. It’s also about equality and what our government is willing to do to remove anything it sees as a threat. But it’s also a film about being black. So is the damage to capitalism and the way entire communities are being abandoned by that same government. It’s impressive that Shaka King is making a film that addresses all of this and redefines one of the most important bands in American history. What should not be lost, however, is the man and the group at the center of this story. In the future, this will be much harder to achieve.

Follow @MovieBabble_ on Twitter and follow Aubrey @ajmckay24.

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frequently asked questions

Who is Judas and the Black Messiah?

Judas and the Black Messiah is a 2021 American biographical drama film about the betrayal of Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party in late 1960s Chicago, by William O’Neill (played by Leikit Stanfield), an FBI informant.

Who organized the Black Panther party?

Huey P. Newton.

Who wrote Judas and the Black Messiah?

King Shaka

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