Sometimes, all of the pieces of a film just come together and fit so beautifully that the resulting work is more intense and beautiful than the sum of its parts. Director Shaka (Newlyweeds) King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, is not perfect in its telling of the 1969 events that led to the merciless slaughter of Fred Hampton, Chicago-based Black Panther Party Illinois chapter leader. But when you look at it broken up into individual scenes, the full impact of the complete work is quite astonishing, inspiring and infuriating.
A great deal of that is due to the lead performances, beginning with Daniel Kaluuya’s note-perfect take on the proud and vulnerable Hampton. Perhaps even more fascinating a role is LaKeith Stanfield’s career-best role as William O’Neal, a car thief who became a inside man and key informant for the FBI as they established a case against Hampton as a terrorist and the Panthers as a radical group that was a threat against the U.S. government. There is something inherently interesting about getting inside the mind of a turncoat, especially one who was able to climb as high in the Panthers as O’Neal did (he became Hampton’s personal driver, for starters) and find a way to spy on him, become close friends, and attempt to protect him without letting the Bureau know he was doing so.
The most intriguing role belongs to Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s partner is so many ways (in the Panthers and personally), who ultimately gave birth to his son and kept his message alive for years after he was killed. She is painted as part muse, part poet and one of the driving forces in Hampton’s organization, helping him fine tune his message while keeping his persona grounded off the stage (at least according to the screenplay, credited to King and Will Berson).
King chronicles not just the key events in this period of Hampton’s life (Kaluuya’s re-creation of his character’s “I am a revolutionary” chant will make the hair on your neck stand up from the electricity) but also the moments of self-reflection, the absolutely justifiable paranoia that would have torn apart a less capable person, and the gifted politician that enabled him to bring together disparate groups of people to fight a common enemy (usually the police or the government). He comes across as the consummate community leader but one who is always open to listening and improving the way things are done if it improves the lives of the ignored classes. He’s far from flawless, but he strives to be a better man and a better leader.
I’ve somehow made it this far without mentioning any of the characters who recruited and utilized O’Neal intelligence, starting with Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), whose “Aw, shucks,” all-American delivery makes him seem clueless about the way the world works. But he’s a master manipulator, letting O’Neal think he’s perfectly willing to throw him in jail for car theft and impersonating an FBI agent if he doesn’t get close to Hampton and his faction. There’s even a sense that Mitchell sees them becoming friends when all is said and done—something O’Neal realizes right away is virtually impossible.
There are a couple of sequences involving J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen)—sometimes with Mitchell, sometimes with other cronies—that are among the worst scenes in the movie, including one in which he makes less-than-veiled threats against Mitchell’s family as a way to get him to sign off on arranging for Hampton’s assassination. First of all, I don’t believe the moment happened, but more importantly, we don’t need to further demonize Hoover at this point in the movie. It’s clear he has it out for Hampton and the Panthers, and him going into full villain mode so late in the proceedings feels like overkill.
As gripping as Kaluuya’s work is here, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of Stanfield because you want to see in his eyes what it is that made O’Neal think becoming Hampton’s Judas was a wise decision. The film gives us glimpses of O’Neal (the real one and Stanfield, at different points in the movie) being interviewed for a PBS documentary shot years after Hampton’s death, and even in those clips, the man is a tough read. The FBI paid him well, apparently, and I’m sure turning traitor was better than going to jail in his eyes. It isn’t until the very end of the film that we discover just how much guilt O’Neal held inside him, and apparently it was quite a lot. In many ways, he’s as much a victim of the inequitable institutional systems that Hampton was fighting to overcome, and both men paid the price—one with his life and one with his soul.
This story seems beyond overdue for an expansive, big-screen telling such as this, but it feels so much of the moment that maybe this is the best time for this movie to be released. Thanks to the sense of immediacy that King brings to his film, it draws us into all of these lives, so much so that when it blows apart before our eyes, it feels like we’ve been kicked in the head and the impact lingers. Good luck shaking this one—not that you’d want to.
The film will be released theatrically and on HBO Max on February 12. Please follow CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending a screening in person.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!