Afros, black berets, leather jackets and guns. These seem to be the tools one imagines when they think of a Black Panther. Founded on October 15, 1966, in Oakland, CA, the party stood for the upwards mobility and liberation of Black people. The story of “Judas and The Black Messiah,” however, takes place on the other side of the country in Chicago, Illinois.
Divided, dangerous and tumultuous. These are a few words that might be used to describe Chicago in the 1960s. However, the Black Panthers saw more than that. They saw life, joy and promise in every individual on every corner. In 1968, the party elected a new chairman named Fred Hampton.
Love and confusion of identity are the two driving forces in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’. On one hand, there is the charismatic, caring and fluent Black Messiah: Fred Hampton, portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya. On the other, there is the lost, histrionic, money-driven William O’Neal, portrayed by LaKeith Stanfield. In a tale as old as time, we see these two opposites paired together.
Warner Bros. held a virtual summit on Feb. 2, the week before the release of the film. The summit consisted of various speakers and talent, and reflected the film in showing that where there’s love, there’s community.
The summit opened with a conversation between Kaluuya and Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., moderated by Baratunde Thurston. The dialogue found the two men discussing the party’s past and present, as well as Chairman Hampton’s impact. When asked about what he took away from the role, Kaluuya responded with “the value of the tools left behind.”
“The power of loving yourself and loving the people that look like you and loving your own community—he had an internal revolution he was free within his own mind, within his own spirit, within his own soul and wanted to give the people the tools to be free within themselves,” said Kaluuya. “To free themselves with education, with food, with legal aid, with all these tools that they put in place and strategies they put in place to promote individual internal liberation as well as community unity.”
The notion of community unity is seen not only during the summit, but in the film as well. Chicago is shown as a city divided but full of bridges that connect. Some of the bridges are inter-community others are intra-community. We see community programs that the Panthers established, the founding of the Rainbow Coalition and the hiring of a spy by the other side.
Chicago is shown as a city of caring people. Everyone wants “their” Chicago to thrive and flourish. The problem is that everyone’s version of Chicago is different. Chairman Fred and the Panther’s version is different from the FBI’s, which is different from the Chicago O’Neal imagines.
The power of Chicago is emulated in the modern day as well. Both Kaluuya, Fishback and Deborah Johnson gushed about how they felt welcomed when they visited the city before filming began.
“We sat around a table for like seven hours and we talked,” said Fishback. “Chairman Fred Jr. was like ‘I wanna go around the table and I wanna know why every single one of you is doing this movie’. And I was like, ‘first of all I’m nervous.’” Afterwards Daniel and I spoke to Mama Akua privately -- by the end I gave her a hug and I said, ‘I hope you know my heart’. She said, ‘I do, I just have to give you a hard time,’” said Fishback.
This idea is one of the driving forces of film. From the beginning, we see O’Neal get himself into a bind. He then has to grapple with the duling sides of what he values more: money or the movement; he becomes a victim of circumstance. In a panel moderated by Lil Rel Howery, Stanfield and Kenny and Keith Lucas, Stanfield and the Lucas Brothers broke down the parts that make up O’Neil.
“There might be some good that comes out of that self reflection of having to sit in the mirror, to some extent, with this character and as he travels through these sticky situations ask yourself, what decision would you have made?”, said Stanfield.
Those six words are the backbone of the story, and will leave audience members thinking about the film long after the credits roll. They will be challenged to look into that mirror and wonder why circumstances can cause someone to go to such extremes.
With the film being called “Judas and The Black Messiah,” one might see there being a wrong and a right; however, what this film does so brilliantly is show every single working cog. All of the curtains are pulled back, laying everything in front of the viewer. It shows the Panthers as a whole, people as a whole, and systems as a whole. Even though someone kisses your cheek and sits by your side, that doesn’t mean they aren’t selling you out for 30 pieces of silver.
“Judas and The Black Messiah” is now available to watch in select theaters and on HBO Max.