Arts and Entertainment

The Black Panthers’ Last Supper

“Judas and the Black Messiah” turns government conspiracy to wine.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Susannah Ahn

Highly anticipated and well worth the wait, “Judas and the Black Messiah” has finally arrived. The story is as educational as it is entertaining, providing insights into the Black Panthers and why they failed.

The Black Panther Party was a political party founded in 1966 Oakland, California. The party focused on Black pride and liberation, alongside its communist influences. With one of the prime tenets of the Black Panthers’ platform being Black armament and their open support for Marxism in Cold War era United States, the party was the subject of government scrutiny from their inception.

This scrutiny led to malfeasance in the form of J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence program. The program resulted in numerous cases of unlawful surveillance, funding domestic paramilitary organizations, architecting smear campaigns, and, most relevantly, performing assassinations. One of their most infamous assassinations was that of Fred Hampton, the subject of this Home Box Office hit.

“Judas” follows William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), an initially reluctant FBI informant tasked with disbanding the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party after being caught stealing a cherry red convertible. Opposite O’Neal is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the chairman of the Chicago chapter. As the film progresses, O’Neal is able to see the good that the Panthers are capable of, but not without also experiencing the violent conflict between the Panthers and the government. O’Neal grows more conflicted as his ties to the Panthers deepen, and begins to question whether he’s really on justice’s side.

Being a historical drama, “Judas” is bound to have at least a few historical inaccuracies. The majority come from the film’s penchant for the dramatic, especially with the story of Bill O’Neal. O’Neal is given a fairly cliche “deep cover” plotline, with a harrowing origin story, violent interrogations on his loyalty, and lavish and discreet rendezvous with his handler. While seeing LaKeith Stanfield dodge knives through the roof of a car and be interrogated with his own gun is fun, such moments also detract from the plausibility of the story, which is a problem when retelling such a tragic event.

All three of O’Neal’s more “cinematic” moments, while dramatized, function to develop his character. Lakeith Stanfield brings great depth to Bill O’Neal, using the subtleties of his own body to convey the nuances of O’Neal’s character. He is able to capture the joy in O’Neal’s face as he picks Hampton up from prison, the admiration he has for FBI agent Roy Mitchell, and the conviction he holds during Hampton’s speeches. With all of O’Neal’s emotions, there’s another hiding just below the surface. In his pride lies guilt, in his anger hides desperation, and in his fear lies exhilaration. Stanfield does an excellent job conveying the toll his double life is taking, but also the excitement O’Neal experiences when he’s doing his “spy” work. One moment, in particular, stands out: O’Neal is faced with the story of what happened to another undercover officer, and just as soon as the dread sets into his face, it's replaced with intrigue, then the embellished bravado of a police informant, and finally, relief and astonishment at his own performance.

Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Hampton, while similarly impressive, is very different. Hampton’s character is that of an earnest leader and is portrayed to be as charismatic as O’Neal, though without the surrounding suspicion. Kaluuya is able to deliver impassioned speeches with locomotive locution while also capturing the same intensity of resolve and belief with almost no words at all. His struggle is also that of a leader, needing to balance the needs of the people with the needs of himself and his family. He’s able to convey tenderness in interactions with his family, but his actions are always conceived with the movement in mind. During his time in prison, he shows worry for how his friends and family are coping, but upon his release, his objective is to get straight to work, even traveling directly from the jailhouse to an office he thought had burned down. Hampton’s return evokes a sentimentality within himself whilst reinvigorating his resolve. Kaluuya’s eyes perfectly express his love and the relief of knowing everything was alright in his absence.

Hampton’s authority is only as strong as his supports, and his main support is Deborah Johnson, played by Dominique Fishback. Johnson is Hampton’s speech-writer turned lover, and her support for the cause is just as strong as her love for her family. While being deeply involved with the Panthers, her pregnancy acts as a constraint on her relationship with Hampton. For every emblazoned speech he gives on how his body belongs to the revolution, every call to arms, Johnson is forced to consider the possibility of Hampton dying “a revolutionary death” and her child growing up without a father. Fishback is able to convey support and pride, but also organically incorporate the worry that can overtake both. The performance is both powerful and subdued enough to serve the purposes of the story while being accurate enough to please the real Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri).

In regard to accuracy, director Shaka King and screenwriters Kenny and Keith Lucas went to great lengths to ensure the majority of the film was as historical as possible while maintaining its dramatic effect. One of the main ways they achieve this accuracy is by portraying the Panthers in a realistic light rather than as paragons of virtue or a grassroots terrorist organization. The film depicts both the good and the bad of the Panthers, and the conflicts they endured with police and with each other. Two missions of the Panthers highlighted in the film are their “Free Breakfast for School Children” program and the development of their community healthcare clinic. The inclusion of these community organizations is juxtaposed with multiple shootouts and the tense retelling of the kidnapping and torture of Alex Rackley. The inclusion of these stories not only serves to accurately portray the complex nature of the organization, but also develops the internal conflict within Bill O’Neal, so the audience can understand his actions.

While the story is brought to life by its actors, it's told through the lens of the camera, and Judas and the Black Messiah” is beautifully shot. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt captures vivid night shots with stunning visibility (where intended) and deep colors, contrasted with brightly lit sets that very directly set the tone. He also develops visual motifs for characters and affiliations using color, surrounding the Panthers with green and government officials with cold lighting and brown tones. Another consideration was setting the time period, and Bobbitt does a great job of recreating the angles of archival footage to help cement the historic nature of the film.

While these angles are used in the film, they’re also intercut with actual re-shot archival footage at pivotal moments of the story, often referring to Lakeith Stanfield’s recreation of William O’Neal’s Eyes on the Prize 2” interview or Daniel Kaluuya’s recreated speeches as a way to transition between scenes. These cuts help frame the film as a piece of history rather than a work of fiction, something especially important considering how easy it is to detach a film as engaging as “Judas” from its source material: reality.

In addition to cinematography, the world of 1960s Chicago is brought to life by music. To supplement the original score, scenes are often set to soulful hits like Roland Kirk’s “The Inflated Tear” and The Jhamels’ “I’ve Cried.” The music sets not only the time period but the perspective of the film, creating a cultural revolution using the voices of that culture. The music, while setting the tone for a scene, contributes to the aesthetic of the movie as a whole.

The film ends with pictures of Akua Njeri and her—now adult—child. These images remind us that this story, while historic, is not over. These images aren’t a call to arms but when juxtaposed with the original Eyes on the Prize interview, they do raise the question: When your needs are against those of the many, will you be proud of the choice you’ve made?