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The ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Exit Survey

Talking Kaluuya versus Stanfield, Martin Sheen’s eerie portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover, and what it means for a movie about the Black Panthers to be released by a studio like Warner Bros.

Ringer illustration

On Friday, Warner Bros. released Judas and the Black Messiah, a film about Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and the plot to assassinate him. The movie had the best trailer of 2020, boasts a cast of endlessly compelling actors, and toted a strong message not often seen in major releases. After watching the movie over the weekend, the Ringer staff congregated to share their thoughts.

1. What is your tweet-length review of Judas and the Black Messiah?

Katie Baker: A historical reckoning featuring a lot of powerful and nuanced performances, and also what can only be described as a deviled-egg version of Martin Sheen.

Justin Sayles: An often gripping film that sometimes treats Fred Hampton as a side character in a movie about his assassination.

Jomi Adeniran:

Lex Pryor: Dominique Fishback deserves all the roles.

Andrew Gruttadaro: Me every time Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, and Dominique Fishback were on screen:

Sean Yoo: Fuck J. Edgar Hoover. All my homies hate J. Edgar Hoover.

2. What was the best moment of the film?

Sayles: The rally after Hampton’s release, when Roy Mitchell poses as a follower and stares down his informant, William O’Neil. It’s perhaps the first moment when O’Neil realizes he’s trapped. Hampton’s thunderous speech only heightens the stakes.

Gruttadaro: Hampton’s speech after coming home from prison is the centerpiece of the movie, captured beautifully. Kaluuya’s performance is breathtaking, the framing of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) and Agent Mitchell’s (Jesse Plemons) interplay is a thrill, and Fishback’s quiet emotion is heartbreaking. Whatever flaws Black Messiah has, this one scene nearly paves over all of them.

Adeniran: The scene when O’Neal talks up how he’d handle a snitch is incredible. It’s hilarious. Everyone else in the scene can’t tell, but the viewer just knows how hard he’s trying.

Pryor: The scene at the end when Lil Rel Howery’s nameless character hands O’Neal his old fake badge. Beyond the fact that it is a perfect bit of Chekovian foreshadowing, Rel’s performance is simply chilling. His character is a perfectly nondescript embodiment of the U.S. intelligence apparatus’ insatiable appetite for control, and the banality of the cooperators that make that control possible.

Baker: The exchange between Fred Hampton and Deborah Johnson when he first spies her at the office was such a great little capsule of their chemistry together. (Later, and sadder, comes another memorable scene from Dominique Fishback: when she sighs then claps as the father of her soon-to-be-born child stands on stage and all but fantasizes about the circumstances of his own surely righteous death.)

Yoo: The speech after Fred Hampton returns from prison not only features an electrifying performance from Daniel Kaluuya but also injects a level of tension that’s unmatched in the rest of the film. It’s a masterful performance from everyone involved—you can’t help but feel every emotion.

3. What was your least favorite part of the movie?

Baker: Listening to J. Edgar Hoover talk about the FBI agent’s baby daughter.

Gruttadaro: I feel petty quibbling about pacing, but the buildup to the climax that you know is coming isn’t quite right, and leaves a sort of emptiness rather than a sense of overwhelming loss.

Pryor: I do wish that the film spent more time grappling with the actual ages of the people on screen. Fred Hampton was 21 years old at the time of his death. Bill O’Neal was 17 when Roy Mitchell first approached him about infiltrating the Panthers. There is something beyond tragic in that, and in spite of the brilliance of actors like Stanfield and Kaluuya, it’s an element that’s missing from the story.

Yoo: It seemed unnecessary to include that scene when J. Edgar Hoover asks Roy Mitchell what he would do if his infant daughter brought home a Black boyfriend. Hoover is an obvious villain, both in the film and in real life, but that scene just played as redundant.

Sayles: It was an excellent bit of filmmaking, but I’ll have trouble shaking the moment of Hampton’s assassination, when the camera is fixed on Dominique Fishback’s face.

Adeniran: The final part of the movie—not because it’s bad, but because it hurts to watch. Seeing Fred Hampton killed in the way he was and then thinking of how Breonna Taylor was killed nearly 51 years later, as a Black person in America, shook me to my core. As far as we’ve come, we still have a ways to go.

Warner Bros.

4. This is a section for a brief character study of Bill O’Neal.

Gruttadaro: Some people are just survivalists. The sad thing is Bill O’Neal briefly convinced himself he wasn’t one.

Yoo: A flawed man caught in a difficult situation, but someone who doesn’t deserve any sympathy for his choices.

Adeniran: Jammed up, with no way out, and forced to snitch on people that he genuinely respects and admires. I will say, Lakeith Stanfield did a fantastic job in making me not completely hate his guts for what he did to Fred Hampton by the end of the film.

Baker: I couldn’t believe it when I did my usual laps around the internet following the movie and learned that when Bill ran afoul of the law and started working as an informant, he was only 17!!! I do wish the movie had given us slightly more context into his background. That was a sweet car, though.

Sayles: This feels like an impossible task, especially without having watched Eyes on the Prize II. But while it’s easy to vilify him, I found myself mostly feeling sympathy.

Pryor: This really is not his fault. I’m not trying to take away the responsibility O’Neal carries in Hampton’s killing, it’s undeniable, but please believe: If it wasn’t O’Neal, the FBI would have found another informant. This is the U.S. government we’re talking about. I know it’s a movie, but let’s keep our eyes on the fucking ball here.

5. You must pick one: Daniel Kaluuya or Lakeith Stanfield?

Gruttadaro: First of all, these two actors are in a class of their own right now. But if I must pick one, it’s Kaluuya—his run since Get Out has been truly unassailable. He got snubbed after an unforgettable performance in Widows—they better not mess up this time.

Yoo: If I’m being forced to pick, I’ll go with Lakeith Stanfield. Daniel Kaluuya nailed Fred Hampton’s voice and was able to generate a similar sense of magnitude, but Stanfield delivered an extremely visceral look into the paranoia one goes through while playing both sides. His performance carried the tone of the film and gave more nuance to a historically hated figure.

Adeniran: Lakeith Stanfield is my guy—I’m still waiting on Season 3 of Atlanta—but Daniel Kaluuya was special. Some major awards better be on the way.

Baker: Rude to make us choose, and Stanfield did such a good job of conveying the internal struggle of a mole, but: I just finished watching another film that featured Kaluuya—the totally underrated Widows, in which he plays a scary bad guy—and he’s two-for-two in the set-in-Chicago genre so far. I think he gets the nod.

Sayles: Both deliver powerful performances, but Stanfield is given more to work with. He doesn’t pack the same C4 as Kaluuya, but deserves a similar level of praise.

Pryor: Dominique Fishback.

Warner Bros.

6. Finish the sentence: “Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover was …”

Pryor: … pasty.

Yoo: … the opposite of President Jed Bartlet.

Baker: … distracting. I kept waiting for him to peel off the prosthetic face and reveal that Tom Cruise was underneath.

Sayles: … played with the level of nuance an unrepentant monster like Hoover deserves.

Gruttadaro: … like Danny DeVito’s the Penguin in Batman Returns.

Adeniran: … gross, vomit-inducing, and incredibly disgusting. Martin Sheen did a great job.

7. What does it mean that a movie like Black Messiah was made and distributed by a major studio like Warner Bros.?

Baker: In a recent interview with GQ that is definitely worth reading, director Shaka King shared a lot of candid thoughts on this subject, beginning with: “It stands on the shoulders of Black Panther.” The film, to an extent, fits in with the recent run of TV and movie projects that are based on real people and historical moments, from Argo to Mrs. America to The Trial of the Chicago 7. But its message is more grim, and more urgent

Sayles: In the mid-’90s, Hollywood began telling stories like this with Panther, which focused on the founding of the organization, and Dead Presidents, which followed members of the Black Liberation Army (though it centered on a failed armored truck robbery). Judas is likely a better movie than either, so let’s hope it’s not another 25 years before the studios try it again.

Yoo: A pro-Black political movie is ripe for the current state of this country and this film could be seen as a few steps toward progress within Hollywood. But it’s ultimately hard to trust an industry that foundationally struggles with race and the acceptance of stories like this.

Adeniran: It’s good but it isn’t enough. Sure, studios will create Black films when showcasing Black trauma, but let’s see a movie about Black people where they go skiing, have three hours to get across Seattle, or decide to somehow steal the Eiffel Tower. We don’t only have to let Black people tell Black stories; we should let them tell any story they’d like.

Pryor: It means that how power manifests itself in Hollywood is changing. I’m doubtful that the systems which determine whose stories are viewed as worthwhile are actually that different, though. Hierarchies reformulate all the time; that does not mean they are dismantled. Hollywood is America and as long as there are Americans who have power because other folks don’t, the forces that kept a movie like Judas and the Black Messiah shadowed for years are still going to be here.