For those even vaguely familiar with the Bible, the title Judas And The Black Messiah (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video) hints at an eventual betrayal by a close friend. This implication pulls the whole of director Shaka King's movie taut, and makes it thrum with the tension of this impending moment of treachery. The Messiah figure is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, in an Oscar-winning performance), chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther party. Fred, a natural-born orator, delivers speeches like they're sermons, feeds the starving and lobbies for better education in the Black community.
The Judas in this allegory is Bill O' Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a teenage criminal arrested for impersonating an FBI agent in an attempt to steal a car. This is 1968 and Bill has two choices — a six-year prison stint, or a job as a double agent embedded inside the Black Panther Party, passing on information to a white-supremacist state worried about Fred's growing sphere of influence and power.
King and co-writer Will Berson use the contrasting personalities of these two figures to build a world in which they're both pawns in a game played by white men. The FBI wants to kill one, and can only do so by manipulating the other. Fred is a firm advocate of Black Revolution, in lieu of measly reform, unwavering in dedicating his life to the cause, all the while knowing that he's signing his death warrant. Bill, however, finds himself less certain of his identity as the time passes. He finds himself speaking in the language of the party he's infiltrated, but falters as though he's not quite sure that he believes it, or even if he can give himself the permission to believe it, given that his allegiances lie elsewhere. While his scheming helps him achieve his short-term goal of staying out of prison, he fails to realize that he's acting against his own larger self interests.
The world these characters inhabit is cruel. Scenes of police brutality are hard to both watch and hear recounted by the other characters. Still, the film carves out moments of tenderness, particularly between Fred and his girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback). Being steadfast in her support of him can't be separated from her all-consuming fear that his cause is eventually going to get him killed. In effectively recounting a history-making betrayal, Judas And The Black Messiah contextualizes Fred's struggle to uplift Black lives, not as a chapter from the past, but as a sobering reminder of why it's necessary for the movement to continue even today.
Recommendation in collaboration with Amazon Prime Video.