“Judas and the Black Messiah” brings to the screen a horrific event in FBI history, one that reveals law enforcement’s racial and political bias and raises the question: How far have we come since J. Edgar Hoover? In December 1969, the FBI, with the assistance of Chicago police and Cook County, Illinois men in uniform, assassinated 21-year-old Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, as he slept, drugged and helpless, in his bed. A civil lawsuit settlement, among other reckonings, acknowledges that as fact.
Hampton is the “Black Messiah” in Shaka King’s second feature, whose producing team is the first all-black unit nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. British actor Daniel Kaluuya magnificently channels the charisma and commitment of Hampton that justifies the title’s label. He is willing to die, Hampton states plainly, for the cause—the cause of empowering the people, of revolution against a system that impoverishes and imprisons blacks, browns, and the poor. “I am…a revolutionary,” he leads crowds in chanting. Perhaps with some justification, Hoover fears that Hampton will unite Chicago’s radical factions, gangs and ethnicities, and threaten the social status quo by bringing together disaffected whites and blacks.
LaKeith Stanfield has the more difficult role as Bill O’Neal, or “Judas,” who infiltrates the Panthers on behalf of the FBI. O’Neal, in the Fed’s grasp once he’s arrested for impersonating a Federal officer, is a small-time crook who shakes down his peers and steals their cars. As O’Neal admits to Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent who will become his handler, “a badge is scarier than a gun.”
The contrast between Hampton and O’Neal, the Black Messiah and Judas, should make for a good story, and it does, but King and his co-writers allow for little nuance. If Hampton is the Black Messiah, then the Panthers and the gangs of Chicago are all Saints, doing only good (breakfasts and education for children) in the face of an evil FBI, headed by the Devil himself, Hoover (Martin Sheen). The only characters with any moral ambiguity are O’Neal, whose thinking is neither explained nor explored in any depth, and to a limited extent Mitchell, who expresses some dismay at the Director’s plans. “Prison,” explains Hoover, “is a temporary solution.” Until that point, Mitchell had seen his employer as the force of good pitted against what he views as the equally bad Panthers and Ku Klux Klan.
The drama that unfolds offers tried and true plot devices, like the threat of outing O’Neal and the appearance of a double agent. It also relies on scenes that are not credible: a public show-down in which the leader of the Crowns, a Chicago gang, acquiesces to Hampton, handing him his rifle in front of dozens of his men; undercover infiltrator O’Neal and FBI agent Mitchell meeting regularly in an upscale restaurant; Mitchell attending a Panther rally posing as a Panther. But Hampton’s “inspired by true events” story is too compelling to be ruined by an inadequate script (King is a co-writer along with several other TV writers and actors of limited experience) that is nonetheless nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
The two primary actors are superb. Both have been nominated and will compete against each other for the 2021 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a curious set-up since it suggests this is a film with only supporting actors and no one whom they support. Kaluuya burst onto the American acting scene with a measured performance in “Get Out!” (2017), was the force for violence as W’Kabi in “Black Panther” (2018) and gave us the sensitive, on-the-run Slim in “Queen and Slim” (2019). With Hampton, Kaluuya continues to display his command of disparate roles. Stanfield, who inhabits a limited and perfectly pitched small part in “Get Out!” and carries the film “Sorry to Bother You” (2018) as the hilarious and tormented Cassius Green, is fascinating as O’Neal, because he is an actor portraying a character who survives by acting: the role within the role. Showing the tension O’Neal faces while keeping his cover is no mean feat.
Both “supporting” actors are supported by two other fine portrayals: Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s strong, reserved, poetic partner, and Jesse Plemons as Mitchell. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is beautifully filmed as well, with a saturated color that makes the shabby Panthers’ headquarters seductively inviting. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“Twelve Years a Slave,” 2013) is also nominated for an Oscar. Including its nomination for Best Song, the film received 6 Oscar nominations, as did 5 other films this year; only “Mank” received more.
One could wish for a more balanced portrait of Hampton and the Panthers, and for more attention to the tension within informant O’Neal, whose 1989 interview for the TV series “Eyes on the Prize II” is an exercise in opaqueness. And yet “Judas and the Black Messiah” resonates loudly and clearly with what is happening now at the hands of the police to black and brown men and women—and some poor white people as well.
Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★ (out of 4 stars)
Director: Shaka King
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen
Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture of the Year; Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Daniel Kaluuya AND LaKeith Stanfield); Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song, “Fight for You”); Best Original Screenplay; Best Achievement in Cinematography (Sean Bobbitt).
Other Awards: 32 wins and another 45 nominations
Runtime: 126 minutes
Availability: For rental, at $19.95 only, on many platforms, including Amazon Prime, Google Play, Fandango Now and Redbox; see JustWatch here for future expanded availability.