Sundance 2021: Judas and the Black Messiah, by David Bax
After nearly a year of video-on-demand premieres–and coming almost at the end of an entirely virtual film festival–the larger-than-life, widescreen photography (by Sean Bobbitt) and the abundant close-ups in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah made me long for the experience of seeing big Hollywood prestige pictures in movie theaters. King and Bobbitt love the faces of their stars–even as they intentionally struggle to keep Daniel Kaluuya’s face in frame during his energetic speeches–in a way that feels like a throwback to star-driven movies from the 90s. Only now those faces are different. Judas is like JFK (except the conspiracy is real) with Kaluuya instead of Kevin Costner or Donnie Brasco with LaKeith Stanfield instead of Johnny Depp.
There are two characters referenced in the title but the first one is much more front and center in this story. Stanfield stars as William O’Neal, a petty criminal who was recruited by an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) and allowed to avoid jail time by acting as an informant. Judas traces O’Neal’s rise through the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and his eventual installment as one of the heads of security for Fred Hampton, the chapter’s chairman. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the historical events, the title makes pretty clear what O’Neal does with the privilege.
That, then, makes Hampton the other man in the title. But “Black Messiah” is not the movie’s judgment of him; the term comes from J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and represents the FBI chief’s fear of any charismatic Black leader who might represent a threat to the status quo of law and order he’s spent decades shoring up. King presents Hampton, his actions and his influences more or less matter-of-factly, neither aggrandizing nor apologizing. The film is far more interested in humanizing O’Neal, its true hero, in the Greek tragedy sense of the word.
Judas is far less ambivalent about its bad guys than its heroes. Plemons’ Agent Roy Mitchell is fond of saying that the violence carried out by the Black Panthers makes them just as bad as the Ku Klux Klan; “two sides of the same coin.” It comes as a slow-dawning surprise to him, then, to realize that the real villains are the ones he works for (although that will be less shocking to the audience, given that Sheen is decked out in ghoulish makeup from the very first scene).
Judas has sympathy for both O’Neal–who acted out of a relatable fear of incarceration–and Mitchell–who presumably believed he entered his line of work to protect people. But the film also recognizes that the existence of gray areas doesn’t mean there aren’t sides in a war and, through action or inaction, both men chose the same one. Some fights are big enough that, if you don’t pick a side, circumstances will pick one for you.