Dave and his friends have this idea of the “the Hemingway last line.” Reflecting Hemingway’s gift for terse, short, punchy sentences that leave you in pieces on the floor. Judas and the Black Messiah is a “Hemingway last line” movie for Dave. He doesn’t give it away, but the reveal at the end reprogrammed his entire experience with the film.
My friends and I have this idea of “the Hemingway last line.” Ernest Hemingway is obviously famous for his terse, efficient style of writing, producing short, punchy sentences that pack a pound of meaning and emotion into an ounce of content. That much has been written about and commented upon since his first book.
The Hemingway last line’ is something I noticed when I first read the man’s work. A Farewell to Arms was assigned in a class, and I hated it. The whole way through, I hated it. I thought the story was boring, the telling was dull, and the imagery un-evocative. The writing was so plain, the story was so simple, I could not understand why everyone made such a big deal about this guy.
Then I read the final line—“After a while, I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”—and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Instantly it clicked. Like the last piece of a puzzle falling into place, I could suddenly see the whole picture, and it took my breath away. The experience of watching Judas and the Black Messiah was like that.
Judas and the Black Messiah, from director Shaka King, follows the story of William “Bill” O’Neal as he is forced by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, and spy on Fred Hampton, the party leader in Chicago. As he spends time with the BPP, O’Neal finds himself drawn to the charismatic Hampton, but unable to break free of his handlers at the FBI. Tensions mount and stakes gradually rise for both men, leading to an inevitable, tragic conclusion.
For the vast majority of the runtime of the film, I thought it was fine, but nothing special. There were good performances—more on those in a moment—but it just seemed like a run-of-the-mill biopic, and I wasn’t going to walk away impressed.
Then I reached the end, and experienced what I can honestly say was the greatest deployment of an end-of-the-film factoid I’ve ever seen, and it instantly recontextualized everything I’d just been watching. Without getting into spoilers, it was like that Hemingway last line, that final puzzle piece falling into place.
Perhaps it was a side-effect of my not knowing the story of Fred Hampton and William O’Neal going in. I cannot say if knowing their story will help the viewing experience—by making that final fact clear the entire time—or hurt it, by robbing the final reveal of that shocking impact. My personal recommendation is to go in knowing as little as possible, if you can. Seeing this movie will likely leave you wanting to know more of Fred Hampton’s story—and I recommend digging deeper, it is fascinating*—but hang back until after you’ve seen the film.
Still, there are two hours of movie that precede that last moment. That, apart from two stellar performances, was fine. Much of it rides on your feelings about biopics. I do not personally care for them much. Biographical films tend to leave me a little cold. Unless like, say, Rocketman, they use creative breaks from absolute truth and reality to illuminate deeper truths of the subject’s story. When played straight, as in this film, I’m often kept at a bit of an emotional remove.
There are, however, the two incredible performances I mentioned above, by Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as William “Bill” O’Neal. To start with the latter, the fact that he’s so good here should come as no surprise. I’ve felt for a while that he’s one of the most talented actors of his generation, and this film is simply one more superb performance to prove that.
Stanfield, however, has the easier job, in a way. O’Neal is a richer, more conflicted character. While Hampton is an idealistic man who is mostly confronted with external obstacles, O’Neal is a man torn between his more selfish, mercenary impulses and the desire to actually become what he is impersonating (Not to mention struggling with his fears of being caught). I forget the origin of the quote, but throughout the film, I continuously reflected on what I’d heard is the mantra of the true double agent, “I served you both well.”
Truly, though, it’s Kaluuya I was surprised by. I have liked Daniel Kaluuya for a long time, ever since he starred in (still) my favorite episode of Black Mirror (“Fifteen Million Merits”).** Between that and movies like Get Out and Widows, I’ve long known that he was good. In this film, though, he transcends good and hits astonishing.
He is simply magnetic in this movie; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Although the role might be a more straightforward one than the challenge Stanfield faced, the sheer force of charisma Kaluuya brought to this movie was something I’d never seen from him before, and it was something to behold.
Jesse Plemons also stars as O’Neal’s FBI handler, a man who has worked cases against the Klan and seems to honestly believe the Klan and BPP are two sides of the same coin. Plemons plays the character with a great deal of reserve, and I understand the thinking behind that choice, but I found myself occasionally wishing I knew just a little bit more about where this character stood.
Dominique Fishback makes an impression as Hampton’s partner, Deborah Johnson, who raises important questions about the gendered assumptions underlying revolutionary slogans.
When five minutes were left to this film, I felt that I’d enjoyed it just fine, but it has been missing some spark that would have made it stand out from the crowded field of quasi-educational, biographical feature films that I’ve seen over the years. I was ready to give the movie 3/5 stars.
Then we hit those closing moments, and everything changed. I don’t feel that I can give the movie a full 5/5, since the retroactive re-framing doesn’t entirely compensate for how I felt during the initial viewing experience—maybe my opinion will change eventually, but that’s how I’m feeling for now—but I am adding a star. It instantly became a better film, and one I would recommend. If you have a taste for biopics, the subject matter, or if you’re a fan of Stanfield or Kaluuya, then this is a particularly strong option for you.
Final score: 4 out of 5 critical puzzle pieces
Judas and the Black Messiah is currently in theaters and available to stream on HBO Max.
*Fred Hampton, and the people in his life such as Deborah Johnson, are figures from history I knew very little about prior to watching this film. If you, like me, find yourself interested in learning more after watching the movie, I recommend first hopping over to trusty old Wikipedia for the overview and then digging into the sources referenced to create the article. Once you have a foundation, if you want to go even deeper, I found this website, with several books on the topic.
**I just realized I knew him from the show Skins even before that. Damn, Posh Kenneth, you’ve come a long way!