Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
The death of the Chairman of the Black Panther Party Fred Hampton in 1969 is an indelible moment in American civil rights history, yet one that has never been given the recognition of other ‘Black Messiahs’ such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Hampton was targeted for assassination by COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) an arm of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that ran a series of illegal operations against what it termed “un-American” organizations during the period between 1956 and 1971. To categorize the activities of COINTELPRO as vile and abusive is an understatement — in short, the FBI created an operation that lacked any ethical concerns as to how it took down its perceived enemies. Those enemies ranged from Civil Rights activists, Socialist Groups, and even the emerging Feminist movement. Director Shaka King shines a light on the program in his film, proving that for them, murder was a justifiable outcome to maintain the conservative status quo.
The scene is late 1960s Chicago, and a young grifter Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is stealing cars using the curious method of pretending to be an FBI agent and shaking down Black folk by using something he sees as being more powerful than weapons — the perception of authority. He is caught in one of his endeavors by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). After an interrogation, in which Mitchell surmises that O’Neal is just a small-time criminal whose interests are essentially self-serving, he recruits the young man to spy on the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is a rising star in the Chicago BPP. A skilled orator, he is also an activist who is building what will be known as a Rainbow Coalition; a multicultural organization that included members from leftist associations. Hampton was also instrumental in diffusing tensions between the BPP and street gangs, converting many of them to the civil rights cause. Hampton’s groundwork also included running food depositories and kitchens for his community. The latter would find him imprisoned for the theft of $71 worth of ice cream and giving them to kids on the street. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out (2017), plays Hampton as focused and electrifying, a man capable of reaching across the divides of black and white to unite against the common enemy — the White Capitalist state. The film sidelines to an extent Hampton’s adherence to Communist and Socialist ideals. Hampton was an avowed Maoist, but this fact isn’t mentioned. Instead, filmmaker King concentrates on Hampton’s ability to rally people towards a common goal, even if that goal isn’t explicitly spelled out as a socialist revolution.
Bill O’Neal inserts himself into the BPP and eventually becomes part of Hampton’s inner circle. O’Neal remains self-serving, but at times it is clear that he is under the sway of the righteousness of Hampton’s mission. However, he is a servant to the FBI and eventually a cowardly figure. A scene played out in Mitchell’s home gives the sense that O’Neal genuinely wants the respect of the white man he is serving and the smallest acts of civility on Mitchell’s behalf, such as offering him the good whiskey or paying for expensive meals at their meetings, genuinely impress the young man. It’s tricky to get a full sense of who O’Neal is. He fears repercussions, he fears jail time for his crime, yet he also finds community in the BPP. He is a man who belongs nowhere, and in effect, he becomes a perfect cipher for the FBI because he lacks conviction to anything but himself. Even when Mitchell asserts that the BPP are just another side of the coin to the KKK, O’Neal doesn’t dissent. He has been taught to fear authority as a black man, yet part of him also wants to be authoritative. O’Neal’s contradictions make for some of the most poignant and well-acted set pieces in the film. LaKeith Stanfield’s sweaty nervousness perfectly encapsulates O’Neal at his weakest, and his exaggerated swagger when he feels powerful speaks volumes about his conflicted sensibilities. King contrasts O’Neal to Hampton’s quiet strength and unwavering confidence in his cause. One is a true believer, the other has nothing to hold on to.
Between the political turmoil and bloodshed, King pauses to concentrate on the love story between Hampton and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). The romance isn’t given a great deal of screen time yet is a poignant part of the film. More than anything, it gives the audience a sense of the personal fears and hopes of Hampton and an idea of who the private man was behind the public persona. There is real warmth and humor in their relationship, and it presses home the point that these two people were still very young and privately vulnerable. Johnson became pregnant with Hampton’s son, who was born only weeks after the assassination of his father.
A propulsive script penned by Will Berson and Shaka King keeps the film tight and the suspense believable (even if the ending is a foregone conclusion). Of particular note is the excellent cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, 12 Years a Slave (2013). Bobbit lenses the film in a manner that implies both grandiosity and intimacy in equal measures, which is perhaps a metaphor for the overall feeling of the piece. Judas and the Black Messiah is a large film with a fine ensemble of actors, but it’s also a character study that focuses on small moments. In one particular scene, a grieving mother asks Hampton if violence will be her son’s legacy? It is a small note but rings a louder bell — the film is indeed about legacy. How many Black Messiahs were gunned down? What is it that we have learned and remembered?
Perhaps it is too early to call Daniel Kaluuya’s performance a career-best because one feels the actor has a long way yet to go in the industry, but it is certainly a defining moment for him. Kaluuya captivates as Hampton exuding charismatic energy. LaKeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You (2018), is equally convincing as O’Neal and the audience, to an extent, feels some sympathy for a man in far too deep with forces he can’t control. Stanfield has nervous energy to burn in the role, and that works. Although in a smaller role, Dominque Fishback, The Hate U Give (2018), as Deborah is excellent, with the final lingering shot on her face after Hampton’s death sure to be one of the indelible moments of the film. Jesse Plemons, The Irishman (2019), as Mitchell uses his everyman appeal to give a face to the FBI that is more palatable than Martin Sheen’s sleazy J. Edgar Hoover.
Judas and the Black Messiah is more than a history lesson come to life. King employs documentary footage in the film to assert that what we are watching is indeed history, this happened; Hampton was assassinated, and the man that helped facilitate his death was Bill O’Neal. King doesn’t waste time setting up who the BPP are, nor does he spend any time on creating a full biography of Hampton or the Judas of the piece. Instead, he charges straight in with a series of powerful character-defining moments that give the audience a sense of who these men were. For some viewers, the lack of information behind the BPP may cause confusion, however, the script delivers enough of the immediacy of their cause, and through the FBI investigation spearheaded by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), the echoes of social unrest are obvious. There remains a sense of urgency to the film — white police swarm Black neighborhoods and carry out illegal and prejudicial activities. It can’t be understated that in the USA, the same kinds of activities are consistently being undertaken today and that movements like Black Lives Matter have faced similar political opposition from law enforcement and conservative governments. Like Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) there is a sense that these stories are being told now because they need to be.
For a fuller understanding into the research of COINTELPRO, see Travis Johnson’s review of Seberg (2019).
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney