Earlier this year, director Shaka King brought our attention to the story of the Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, and his government orchestrated assassination with his film ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ (2021). At the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony in April, the film made Oscar history as the first nominated film for Best Motion Picture with an all black producing team and ended the night with two awards in its pocket for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton) and Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Picture (original song “Fight For You” by H.E.R., D’Mike, and Tiara Thomas). Along with its merited success, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is celebrated for its intuitive use of music that is both culturally intentional and narratively complimentary creating an immersive experience of its contemporary era for the audience.
After getting caught impersonating an FBI agent to steal cars, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is offered a deal by the U.S. government to infiltrate Chicago’s Black Panther Party and to get close to its chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). What starts out as a self-interested quest for the aspiring FBI agent, turns into an ultimate conflict of identity, values, and contemporary black freedom all within the broad reach of the U.S. government. Bill becomes the Judas in this story to Fred Hampton as the Black Messiah making ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ a dooming rendering of the historical tale many already know the ending to.
Since the film is based on major cultural events, it is responsible for appropriately catering to that story while simultaneously creating an emotional experience for the audience. Each character in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is flawed, including the very notion of “activism” itself. As the film captures intimate moments between the characters, it allows viewers to question the idea of activism for themselves. This transparency within the narrative gives room for stronger empathy towards the characters as they are broken down and their contradictions become more and more clear as the film progresses. The music throughout the film adds to this space as a tool that brings the audience closer to a moment that has already passed while also building us up emotionally as we learn more details of the story we thought we already knew.
While preparing for the film musically, King was heavily influenced by jazz multi-instrumentalist Rashaan Roland Kirk and his song ‘The Inflated Tear’ (1968). Aside from his musical talent, Roland Kirk was also known to be politically outspoken when it came to the black experience in America. The song ‘The Inflated Tear’ in particular was celebrated for its culmination of sounds stemming from African American music history. Scored by King’s uncle Craig Harris, a Harlem jazz musician, and film composer Mark Isham, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ uses four different versions of the song as a touchstone for the most pivotal moments of the story. At the film’s opening, it is the first song we hear as we are introduced to Bill as the fake-FBI agent car thief. The sounds of the saxophone almost mimic that of a car horn, tying in the urban landscape of Chicago into the fabric of the film itself (Kirk was known to be inspired by the music in everything including car horns, trains, sirens, and other sounds familiar to city environments). This is repeated as a motif in the film that heightens the important role the car plays in the story. Another version of the song plays when fellow Black Panther, Judy (Dominique Thorne), questions Bill in his car after he is identified by a member of the Crowns as the FBI car thief from the opening scene. The car, which was given to Bill by the U.S. Government to help transport Fred Hampton, holds Bill hostage in compliance with Judy. In this scene, Bill is both physically and metaphorically trapped by both the FBI and the Black Panther Party, and the scene is supported by its version of ‘The Inflated Tear,’ intensifying the tension and suspense between the characters.
Harris and Isham’s use of music is smoothly integrated with the sounds that are heard within a scene. When Jake (Algee Smith), another member of the party is seeking answers surrounding the mysterious death of his friend, he gets in a shooting match with the cops. As the sound of the gunshots fill the scene, the score picks up with the gunshots matching its rhythm, which slowly intensifies with deeper percussion and strings as the scene reaches its climax.
With the conclusion of the film ending with Fred Hampton’s funeral, we are brought back to the beginning with ‘The Inflated Tear’ but this time the emotion brought about feels heavier and stronger. The viewer has now been intimately immersed in all the events that have led up to this moment, giving them a whole new sense of empathy and understanding for this ending.
Altogether, the score of ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ with the song ‘The Inflated Tear’ as its backbone seamlessly integrates the story of Bill O’Neal and his relationship with Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party with the cultural environment of its historical era. With attention to both the film’s diegetic environment and the subtle emotional cues, the music used to support this film plays an instrumental role in how we experience Shaka King’s rendering of such a moment in not only our nation’s history but also the personal stories of Willam O’Neal and the legacy of Fred Hampton.