Review: “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of the events leading up to the murder of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in a raid on his apartment by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Chicago Police Department, and the FBI. It’s told primarily through the perspective of Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who worked his way up in the party to be one of Hampton’s heads of security and who was crucial in setting up the raid. But as easy as it would be to condemn O’Neal for his betrayal, King places the blame squarely on the FBI and the police system that both attacked the Black Panthers for pushing back against police brutality while forcing O’Neal, a petty crook arrested for impersonating an FBI officer, to choose between years in jail or helping them in exchange for his freedom.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” doesn’t really succeed in developing the relationship and the trust between Hampton and O’Neal, but despite some issues with slow pacing here and there it does serve as a potent portrayal of how both parties suffered at the hands of the FBI. The Black Panther Party believed in arming themselves to police the police in response to police brutality, and that’s the image most people still hold of the party to this day: Black people marching in their black berets, guns slung over their shoulder. The film doesn’t not dive deep into political intricacies, but toward the beginning it does show Hampton promoting some of the party’s social programs, aimed at bettering their community. It’s a subject that many seem to gloss over; the Black Panther Party implemented a free breakfast program for kids, health clinics, and educational programs, among other things. But even those services made the white people in authority feel threatened; in 1969 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played in the film by Martin Sheen) called the party the “greatest threat to internal security in the country,” and in the film he likens Hampton, rapidly rising in power and influence in the party, to a “Black messiah.” The FBI went after him and the rest of the party as a result; as King shows in his film, they even went so far as to create rifts between the Black Panthers and other groups in Chicago, and launched a smear campaign to alter the public’s perception of the party.

Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Kaluuya is electrifying throughout these scenes. Mostly he is rather quiet and stoic, but when he is speaking publicly, there is power and force to his words (see, for example, just over halfway through the film, when Hampton and a crowd of supporters chant “I am a revolutionary”). Kaluuya nails Hampton’s vocal inflections, but he more than physically embodies the role. Even though Hampton is not the focus of the film, we get a good sense of him, especially in the more intimate moments with his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). A fellow activist and poet, Johnson is more than just the supportive woman lingering in the background. Even though I would have loved to have seen more of her in this movie, I’m glad that King spent a good amount of time developing the relationship between her and Hampton.

Stanfield, meanwhile, carries the emotional brunt of the film, which is mostly told from his point of view as he orchestrates the raid that eventually would result in the deaths of Hampton and fellow party member Mark Clark (Jermaine Fowler). At first, O’Neal seems to have little issue going along with the FBI’s plan if it means he’ll avoid felony charges. There are times when he seems almost gleeful at the way he is pulling off his deception. The other party members are initially more wary of him than Hampton; after Judy (Dominique Thorne) accuses him and being an informant and forces him at gunpoint to hotwire their car as he claims he can do, he drives off with a laugh and a smile. But as the film progress, we can see the pain in his eyes at times as the guilt starts eating at him, and he is stuck with cooperating with the FBI. It’s clear that he is afraid of dying (he has nightmares about the Panthers finding out he is an informant and killing him) but he doesn’t seem to want to hurt others either. His relationship with his FBI handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), becomes also becomes increasingly contentious. The film is bookended with archival footage of the Black Panther Party and also sees Stanfield playing O’Neal later in life, during the only on-camera interview he ever gave about the events for a 1989 documentary, “Eyes on the Prize II.” The same day it aired on TV, O’Neal committed suicide.

Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson in “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Despite their great performances, I almost wish younger actors had been cast in the roles of Hampton and O’Neal. At the time of his murder, Hampton was only 21 years old, and O’Neal was 20; they just barely weren’t children. Kaluuya and Stanfield are young, and their presence doesn’t diminish the tragedy of the events of the film, but they also don’t look like 20 year olds. Still, one of the most striking things about “Judas and the Black Messiah” is how King conveys violence without really showing us violence. There are very few graphic moments in the film, and they really aren’t necessary. In the fatal raid at the end, we never see the bullets hit Hampton. In fact, the scene is shot in mostly darkness; we can only hear the shots ringing out, and the screams, before the lights finally come on and reveal the aftermath. The scene is still absolutely terrifying, as is the discrimination and manipulation we watch unfold throughout the film. Having recently watching “MLK/FBI,” a new documentary that uses recently declassified FBI files to examine the FBI’s invasive monitoring of Martin Luther King Jr. as they tried to dig up anything they could use against him to portray him as a threat, many parts of “Judas and the Black Messiah” feel all the more impactful. King and the Black Panthers may not have shared the same politics, but they were both seen as threats against the country all the same. Not because they were violent, not because they committed any crimes, but because they pursued racial justice and equality.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until March 14. Runtime: 126 minutes. Rated R.

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