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How Best Picture nominee Judas and the Black Messiah questions the meaning of freedom

The powerful drama about the assassination of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton presents moral queries that rhyme with the present.

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A group of Black Panthers in berets stand around Hampton, who speaks into a microphone.
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Warner Bros.

This year, eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy! So in the days before the ceremony on April 25, Vox staffers are looking at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, director of audience and engagement Nisha Chittal, video producer Coleman Lowndes, and identities reporter Fabiola Cineas talk about Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s powerful drama about the assassination of Black Panthers Illinois Chapter Chairman Fred Hampton.

Judas and the Black Messiah’s dynamic recapturing of history

Alissa Wilkinson: Judas and the Black Messiah blew me away when I first watched it. Partly for obvious reasons — the story is powerful and damning — and partly because it’s just tremendously well-directed. I know I won’t forget Daniel Kaluuya and (my personal favorite) LaKeith Stanfield’s performances when it’s time to make my best-of-2021 lists later this year.

I knew the basic outlines of the story of Fred Hampton’s assassination and the FBI’s attempt to quash Black activism and the Panthers at that time. But I didn’t know about Bill O’Neal, and it felt smart to me to cast them in the bigger messiah/traitor mold — and then subvert it to show that even O’Neal was the victim of betrayal.

But I’d like to hear from you: When you watched the film, what drew you into it? What stuck in your mind? And how did you feel about O’Neal by the end?

Nisha Chittal: I didn’t know a lot about Judas and the Black Messiah going in — I hadn’t read any reviews or coverage, so I had little idea of what to expect and then found myself just totally gripped by the film the entire time. I felt like I needed to decompress afterward because it had been such an intense viewing experience, but in a good way. It’s the kind of film that is so well-made that it completely captures your undivided attention from start to finish.

Like you, Alissa, I knew the basic outlines of Fred Hampton’s story but I didn’t know about Bill O’Neal. I thought the film did a good job of capturing the complexity of his story and his own struggles instead of just casting him as a pure villain.

And yes, everyone’s talking about LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya’s performances, and with good reason. But another character that really stayed with me was Hampton’s partner Deborah Jones, played by Dominique Fishback. I thought her performance was really moving and deserves more attention, too.

Coleman Lowndes: I also didn’t know much about Judas and the Black Messiah going into it, and to be totally honest I didn’t know the story of Fred Hampton. But the way the opening credits blends rich archival footage seamlessly into the film’s setup was a really engaging way to bring any viewer up to speed on the context of the story.

That, coupled with the first scene, where LaKeith Stanfield clumsily poses as an FBI agent to steal a car, totally hooked me. Those first few minutes really set the tone of a high-stakes historical drama and a carefully crafted period piece dripping with cool and deception. The rest of the movie didn’t disappoint.

Like Nisha, I appreciated that the film was careful not to portray O’Neal as an outright villain, and more of an extension of a sinister FBI. Stanfield’s performance of the character felt like what I imagine the real O’Neal was: a sort of incompetent con man in way over his head.

A group of young Black people in berets walk in a group.
Black Panther Party members, led by Fred Hampton.
Warner Bros.

Fabiola Cineas: I can’t get over how young all of these people were. That Hampton was only 21 when he was assassinated and that O’Neal was only 17 when he started informing the FBI about the Panthers in Chicago blows my mind. But this startling reality holds true in how Kaluuya, 32, and Stanfield, 29, portrayed these characters. It’s evident in how Stanfield is clumsy (the way he scrambled around the Panthers headquarters before the shootout) and almost naive in his race traitor lifestyle.

The moment when he asked FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) how much money he makes is a great example of this. Kaluuya is masterful in the way he plays a character who is somewhat gentle and soft but also speaks of revolution, AK-47s, and killing pigs. I’m impressed by how the script skillfully presented layers of nuance, questioning what it means to really be “free,” for example. Hampton speaks of freedom when he’s out of prison, saying he’s finally free, but it was clear he wasn’t. Following Hampton’s assassination, Mitchell tells O’Neal he’s finally free, but it was clear he wasn’t.

This movie did not make me hate O’Neal. I pitied him because of how writer-director Shaka King managed to show O’Neal’s suffering. I found myself keeping tabs on what was moral and immoral in this film, and O’Neal actions definitely landed on the immoral side most of the time.

Alissa: I think the switch-up of expectations that the film creates from the title — that O’Neal will be the “Judas” of the story (and he is, to an extent) — is wonderfully undercut by the realization that O’Neal is railroaded by the FBI. As I said in my review, there’s another layer here: That the people who are supposedly given authority to “protect” citizens are actually actively trying to harm them is, itself, a betrayal.

Also, I’m with Nisha on not forgetting that Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s partner Deborah Johnson, is fantastic in what is arguably a too-small role!

I’m curious about something you said, Fabiola — the idea of freedom that this movie sets up. For instance, Hampton and the Black Panthers see that for everyone to be free, they have to create a coalition between groups that might otherwise be fighting for whatever scraps of freedom the powerful send their way. Are there ways that Judas and the Black Messiah made you think about freedom, or about even today’s politics, in different ways? And if so, how?

Judas and the Black Messiah is about events in the past, but it resonates loudly today

Nisha: I agree with Fabiola that the movie made me feel pity for O’Neal. Just portraying him as the “bad guy” would be too binary; he clearly wrestled with the moral consequences of what he was doing, but he had very few choices himself — he was not free.

It certainly felt very relevant to today’s politics; I thought a lot about the events of 2020 and how so little has changed. I think it can be easy for some audiences to watch this movie about the government brutally murdering a Black man and think wow, I can’t believe that happened, it’s not like that today. But in many ways it still is; racism and police brutality against Black Americans is obviously still persisting, we’re in the middle of the trial of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd right now as we speak. Watching the film made me reflect on how much has changed and yet how little has changed.

Coleman: What really stuck out to me as something that still feels very contemporary was the language that advocates of white supremacy use around the “right way” to press for basic human rights. In that same scene Fabiola mentioned, where O’Neal is in Mitchell’s house for the first time, Mitchell says something along the lines of being “all for equality” but “you can’t jump the line,” referring to the Panthers’ willingness to arm themselves and use violence when necessary.

That same language of “taking it too far” was used to condemn the upheaval after Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police in Baltimore in 2015, and around the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s killing by police last summer.

The theme of oppressors determining who gets to be free, and when, plays out in Mitchell and O’Neal’s relationship, too. Even after Hampton is imprisoned, and O’Neal wants out, Mitchell lets O’Neal know that he hasn’t done enough yet to earn his own freedom.

Fred Hampton stands at a podium in front of a banner reading “Welcome Back Chairman Fred,” with William O’Neal in front of him. Both raise their fists.
Fred Hampton and William O’Neal (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield) in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.

Fabiola: Judas and the Black Messiah only affirmed what has been true for centuries about the relationship between white supremacy and violence in America. Those who want to uphold white supremacy will go lengths to protect it. This is evident in the loaded question FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) asks Mitchell about his eight-month-old daughter: “What will you do when she brings home a Negro?”

The question throws Mitchell off-guard and Hoover uses it as an opportunity to verbalize the FBI’s racist mission that’s at the core of the film: “When you look at Hampton, think of Samantha, because that’s what’s at stake if we lose this war. Our entire way of life. Rape. Pillage. Conquer. You follow me?” This scene escalates the intensity of the film and pushes us through the final half of it. A desire to preserve whiteness and its benefits is what’s wrong with policing, housing, education, health, and other areas of our society.

The line that you pointed out, Coleman, definitely stuck with me, too. The narrative is still that we have to wait and not “cheat” for civil rights — this reasoning didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now. It also connects to how Mitchell equates the Panthers with the KKK when he says that both groups are “one and the same” with a shared aim of sowing hatred and inspiring terror. Today, there’s a constant false equivalency made between white extremists and Black Lives Matter, with claims that there’s violence on all sides. And it was recently found that that FBI and other police organizations were surveilling and spying on Black journalists and activists.

Alissa: Honestly, despite the gap of many years since this film’s events and today, everything in it seems incredibly fresh. That’s just so angering to consider.

Okay, so I have one more question. If someone watched Judas and the Black Messiah and wanted more recommendations on what to check out next, where would you send them? Movies, podcasts, shows, books — anything that reminded you of this movie, or might help fill out the story more?

What to watch and read after you’ve seen Judas and the Black Messiah

Fabiola: The Spook Who Sat By the Door was on my mind. It’s definitely a bit of a flip on the Judas and the Black Messiah story but totally related. In the 1969 Sam Greenlee novel (published 10 months before Hampton’s assassination), the CIA hires Dan Freeman as its only Black operative via an affirmative action program. He’s secretly a Black nationalist, so when the CIA treats him as the token he eventually leaves and heads back to his hometown of Chicago. There, he secretly trains groups of young Black men in the tactics he learned from the CIA, leading them to overthrow “the system.” The book was adapted into the 1973 film by the same name and there’s an upcoming FX pilot of the story produced by Lee Daniels.

I also want to direct people to The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011) and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) — two powerful documentaries that provide a lot of raw context about the Party and its aims. And since we all agree that Dominique Fishback’s portrayal of Deborah Johnson, now Akua Njeri, was impeccable, I want to spotlight how women were key to the Black Panther Party. I recommend the autobiography “Assata,” in which former Black Panther Assata Shakur (she eventually left the Party for the Black Liberation Army) chronicles the harrowing story of how she was a target of the state and J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to criminalize Black nationalists.

Lastly, A Taste of Power is the memoir of the Black Panther Party’s only chairwoman Elaine Brown. She led the party from 1974 to 1977 when Chairman Huey P. Newton went into exile in Cuba. Her story is important and isn’t talked about enough.

Nisha: Fabiola’s recommendations are excellent! From my end, I’d say that Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are both among the best actors working today, and it’s worth seeking out some of their other performances. You can see them both together in Get Out, but for the very best of Stanfield, you have to watch Atlanta. Daniel Kaluuya is terrifying in Steve McQueen’s film Widows. And for context, Fred Hampton’s death figures into a critical moment in another one of this year’s Best Picture nominees, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, from a very different point of view. I recommend watching both and making up your own mind about how each story is told.

Coleman: To be honest, I’m not sure what to add! I knew very little about the Black Panther Party going into this film, and it definitely left me wanting to learn more. Fabiola’s recommendations seem like a great place to start.

Seconding what Nisha said, and if you want more LaKeith Stanfield in particular, writer/director Boots Riley’s 2018 debut Sorry to Bother You is an absolute must-see.

Alissa: Ooh, yes — Sorry to Bother You is a banger, and a radical film all on its own.

I’d also add Agnes Varda’s short 1970 documentary Black Panthers (which you can rent on digital platforms, though it’s also streaming on the Criterion Channel). It really digs into what the Panthers were doing during the time period this film covers, and includes a lot of interviews with the Panthers, including Huey Newton, who at the time was in prison.

And I’ve recommended this over and over this year, but for a different twist on the work of the Panthers — this time in the UK — I can’t recommend Steve McQueen’s Mangrove more. It’s part of his Small Axe collection of films from 2020, and it’s the best courtroom drama I’ve ever seen.

Judas and the Black Messiah is playing in theaters and available to digitally rent on platforms including Apple TV, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Google Play. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.