Black trauma has reached a fever pitch of sorts in Hollywood.
Between depictions of historical events that Black kids learned about in grade school and the numerous, powerful original stories framed around the enduring Black socioeconomic American condition, viewers are being forced to examine just how much of this brand of media they can tolerate in lieu of, say, an innocuous Black love story like Netflix’s Sylvie’s Love.
It’s hard to blame folks for wanting to keep away from artistic Black trauma, especially in light of the current racially-charged zeitgeist. But it’s tough to not recommend historical films like Judas and the Black Messiah, which handles its source material with grace and not naked exploitation.
Judas (in theaters and on HBO Max Feb. 12) tells the true story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaaluya), the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and what transpired when petty Chicago criminal William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) entered his life. Hampton’s fate is a matter of public record: the revolutionary was murdered by the FBI and Chicago police as he slept at age of 21. (The film was shot close to the 50th anniversary of Hampton’s assassination). O’Neal became an FBI informant to avoid prison, infiltrated the Illinois chapter and contributed directly to Hampton’s demise.
Judas is the first major studio film by Shaka King, known for his 2013 indie comedy Newlyweeds, and is produced by Black Panther and Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler. The film was shot with the imprimatur of Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s fiancé and the mother of their son, Fred Hampton, Jr., both of whom consulted on the film.
Stanfield delivers a career-making performance as the petulant, exceedingly conflicted O’Neal, making it tough for viewers to parse out where the activist ends and the snitch begins. But Kaaluya is the true star here, capturing the drawl and magnifying presence that allowed Hampton to capture so many imaginations at such a young age. When falling for Johnson (Dominique Fishback), Kaaluya demonstrates the subtle awkwardness of a man who can calmly stare down a gang holding a gun to his face, but, like many 20-year-old men, still struggles with the opposite sex.
The supporting cast includes the always-reliable Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights, The Irishman) as the FBI agent with that good-white-guy veneer hiding something far more insidious, and Ashton Sanders (Moonlight, Native Son) as real-life Panther, Larry Roberson. A cameo appearance by comedian Lil’ Rel Howery rounds out a Get Out reunion with Kaaluya and Stanfield.
King does a remarkable job of carrying us through Hampton’s final days and hitting important historical beats, including his efforts to broker peace with Chicago street gangs and the formation of the Rainbow Coalition with white and Latino groups who found common ground.
But Judas is one of those rare films that could have benefited from an even longer runtime than its 2 hours, 6 minutes: an historical epic in the key of Spike Lee’s 1992 opus Malcolm X would’ve been welcome.
It would have been even more interesting for Judas to dig deeper into O’Neal’s psyche and his penitence over his actions that likely drove him to commit suicide in 1990 at age 40. The film also touches on historical events impacting the Panthers’ Roberson and Jake Winters (Algee Smith), but doesn’t flesh them out as much as I would’ve liked.
As expected, the soundtrack is par for the era – late-60s soul jams befitting a brim-hatted brother rolling up the street in a Deuce and a Quarter. The love story between Hampton and Johnson is scored by a delightful piano melody previously used in the immaculately-scored 2004 film Sideways.
While Judas and the Black Messiah deserves to be dissected on its own merits, it will be nigh impossible to not place the film in the context of the social and political climate in which it’s being released. It’s been nine months since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police and a few weeks since the U.S. Capitol was overrun by folks brandishing Confederade battle flags, so Judas will no doubt lean on a collective raw nerve.
As long as the climate doesn’t prevent the film from receiving the awards season hosannas it deserves, that nerve-leaning will be just fine – just dig in and prepare to be angry by the film’s conclusion.