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By Chris Courtney Martin · May 17, 2023
Director Shaka King’s riveting Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) is an instant classic in the pantheon of docudramas. In reviewing this story about the betrayal and assassination of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Black Panther Party, it’s key to use a story structure analysis that relies heavily on character.
More traditional models such as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat or Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey wouldn’t quite do justice to the unique construction of Judas and the Black Messiah, which inverts the audience’s typical protagonist/antagonist perception in order to focus on the sabotage that led to the death of its true hero.
Here, we apply an archetype model to see how Judas and the Black Messiah maintains its emotional flow as the audience is led by the viewpoint of a character we’re meant to root against, while at the same time tracking the rise and fall of the humanitarian he double-crosses.
Here’s a link to the script so you can follow along!Download the script!
In order to break down the character-driven docudrama Judas and the Black Messiah, let’s dig into the story analysis of screenwriting guru Alan Schechter. His book “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story” uses four archetypes to track the main character’s narrative journey through the movie. To see more on this theory, read my last article where I used Schechter to break down the mind-bending thriller The Number 23.
With inspiration from Carl Jung and scholar Carol S. Pearson, who cultivated a list from Jung’s theory of “archetypes,” Schechter’s model assigns an archetype to the protagonist for each stage of the narrative, starting with the “Orphan” in Act 1.
Then, as the movie progresses, the protagonist becomes the Wander in Act 2, the Warrior after Midpoint and finally the Martyr in the finale.
The dynamic 111-page screenplay for Judas and the Black Messiah yields few deviations from the completed film. This is likely because the work of King and screenwriters Will Berson and Kenneth Lucas is fully immersed in the cinematic experience. From inserted newsreel bites to fluid inter-cuts, the script for this biographical crime drama is a masterclass.
Read More: How To Use 3-Act Structure To Better Write Your Screenplay
In the First Act of Judas and the Black Messiah, we get to meet Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the lesser-known FBI informant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). They are both young men very close in age and background, but diametrically opposed in moral character. O’Neal is introduced as he uses the pretense of an FBI raid to steal from other disenfranchised Black folks. Meanwhile, Fred is finding his bearings in a prodigious leadership position at twenty years old.
Bill can be seen as an Orphan here because he’s a loner who is left up to his own devices to fend for himself on the mean streets of his oppressed neighborhood. Other than the Panthers, he’s spying on and the FBI agent who owns him after catching onto his grift. Bill has no significant ties to anyone at this point. And his initial interactions with the Party are somewhat tense, as he comes off as disingenuous.
Conversely, Fred is surrounded by people who love and admire him. But nobody in his circle understands what it’s like to hold his position of authority. He is alienated from the group in that sense and also seen as an Orphan in this early part of the script. It’s up to Fred to influence extremely disparate groups of people with captaincy that is expected to come naturally. And when his poet/speechwriter love interest, Deborah, enters the picture as the only person unafraid to offer blunt critique, it becomes clear that his position has him somewhat aloft.
Read More: Best Movies About the Civil Rights Movement
Antagonist O’Neal successfully infiltrates the Panther Party by making himself essential as Fred’s driver. His scrappiness impressed the Party. His duplicitousness impressed Agent Mitchell. But he still must make headway with both entities and also navigate the two worlds. O’Neal is under the impression that he can flip his position as an informant into a real long-term win.
When he sees his tips used in disinformation to sow a rift between the Panthers and the local gangs, O’Neal witnesses his handiwork in action. He’s able to ascribe value to it. And as Fred comes up with more and more subversive unifying tactics, O’Neal’s subterfuge capitalizes on the Party members’ growing skepticism around them. This leaves Fred and the Party to clean up the messes that result– such as the sabotage of the breakfast program. But when a member of the Crowns gang recognizes O’Neal from his carjacking grift during a parlay, he draws suspicion from two Panthers. This makes him realize he’s on thin ice. Still, he ingratiates his way to being named Security Captain.
As the protagonist, Fred’s “wandering” is almost literal as he travels from group to group looking for solidarity against their common enemy– the police state. His hidden shyness is on full display as he falls in love with Deborah, and it becomes clear that his expressive public image is a necessity for the liberation of his people– not the sum of who he is. After being accused of stealing ice cream for the breakfast program, Fred is locked up under the command of J. Edgar Hoover. It appears that his most innocuous attempts are punished the hardest.
Both Fred and O’Neal are caught up in this dangerous dance of strategy, trial and error. And only one of them knows the full truth of it.
Read More: Untold Stories: History Through the Eyes of Black Filmmakers
While Fred’s in prison and the cops amp up their racist harassment, an on-the-run Panther from out of state visits Fred’s headquarters with news– an informant was just murdered for ratting out his local party to the feds. O’Neal starts a rat-hunting ruse to remove any suspicion from himself.
While Fred is still in prison, he does his best to organize his fellow inmates while sending messages of encouragement back home via letters to Deborah. His incarceration has not deterred his quest for revolution. In true Warrior fashion, he soldiers on. O’Neal finds himself doubling down on his revolutionary charade. He leads security initiatives including Deborah’s protection as Fred’s budding First Lady (and, as we come to discover, mother-to-be of his child). The Party is forced to go into Warrior mode in Fred’s absence, left to defend their neighbors from escalating police oppression. Two party members intervene in the cops’ illegal harassment of a Black deli and one of them– Jimmy Palmer– is shot.
During a shoot-out with the cops at HQ, O’Neal volunteers to “secure the roof” but can’t take the heat. His Warrior journey amounts to putting on his best warrior face while searching harder than ever for a way out. The police burn down HQ after this same firefight and the Panthers join hands with their community to rebuild. With the Panther Party and their neighbors being an extension of Fred’s Warrior mode, the FBI and the White House grow into an extension of O’Neal’s. Fred is scheduled for release from prison, which means they will move to finish the operation once and for all.
Upon his release, Fred learns that Deborah is pregnant. Soon after, he discovers that the cops killed Jimmy Palmer in the hospital. Instead of seeing his future son as a reason to deflate his fight, he chooses to call even louder for a world where that child will be free.
Acts 2 and 3 are bridged by a harrowing speech from Fred in Jimmy’s memory, where he foretells his fate of literal martyrdom. He declares that he is ready to die “high off the people” in the line of his revolutionary duty. Fred finds some of Deborah’s poetry, written about their coming child and their possibility of a life together. Through her words, she reassures him that despite the danger, she wouldn’t change a thing about their relationship. She’s proud to carry his baby.
A Panther named Jake Winters avenges Jimmy Palmer’s death by killing a cop and it sets off an all-out war. O’Neal goes off the deep end, going so far as to suggest the Panthers use C4 explosives to blow up City Hall. Mitchell pressures O’Neal into aiding in Fred’s assassination, stating that if O’Neal refuses, he’ll be set up to be murdered after being outed as a rat. So, O’Neal spikes Fred’s drink with the sedative that renders him defenseless when the officers and agents raid his apartment.
Fred’s story ends in true martyrdom, as he’s gunned down in the raid. He was assassinated for holding onto his convictions. What O’Neal ends up sacrificing is his soul.
In the case of Judas and the Black Messiah, an atypical viewpoint structure intentionally highlights the characters because it allows a juxtaposition of their integrity. Thus, an analysis tool that centers itself on character phases within a character arc is the one that makes the most sense.
Read More: Explore the Story Structure of Joel Schumacher’s Mind-Bending The Number 23