By Kelli Weston
Judas and the Black Messiah
Dir. Shaka King, U.S., Warner Bros.
To see footage of Fred Hampton is to be completely spellbound. He was effortlessly charismatic, a supremely gifted orator with an almost musical cadence: a born preacher, who never failed to command the crowd or the camera. By the late 1960s, he had made a name for himself as an expert organizer and quickly rose through the ranks of the Black Panther Party to become chairman of its Illinois chapter. In 1969, he forged a multiracial alliance—the Rainbow Coalition—between the Black Panthers and Chicago’s most powerful street gangs in a move that would inspire Black activists for generations. He was 21 years old on December 4th that same year when he went to sleep and the FBI had him executed in his bed. (Another Black Panther, Mark Clark, was also killed by the police officers who stormed the apartment, and several other members were injured.) Integral to the government’s operation was a teenage car thief turned informant, William O’Neal.
Equal parts noir, thriller, and elegy, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is not exactly a biopic. As the title suggests, this is not so much the hero’s tale as the traitor’s. In the prologue, archival clips of figures like Angela Davis and Doc Satchel among others, remind us what the Black Panthers—their legacy broadly flattened to all-black getups and afros—actually stood for: namely, protection for Black people, a “non-capitalistic state,” with free healthcare, free education, free breakfast for children. O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) appears briefly in a re-enactment of the only public interview the real man ever gave—for the 1990 docu-series Eyes on the Prize 2—decades after Hampton’s death. But the film really begins, fittingly, with an act of impersonation.
We first meet O’Neal in disguise. Draped in a trench coat with a hat bent low over his face, he enters a bar and flashes a fake badge that identifies him as a federal agent. It turns out he has used this ruse before to steal cars. This time he gets picked up by real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons), part of the effort, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen)—who famously feared the rise of a “Black messiah”—to neutralize the “threat” that Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) with his Communist rhetoric posed to the nation’s “security.” Mitchell recruits O’Neal, threatened with prison time, to infiltrate the Black Panthers. After some initial trouble, he becomes so entrenched that he is eventually tasked (in no small irony) with protecting Hampton. The rest is tragedy.
For all the proposed Biblical implications, and indeed proportions, King and co-screenwriter Will Berson temper their reverence with humane compassion for the wily, treacherous, sympathetic O’Neal, artfully rendered by Stanfield. But aside from a throwaway line about his nickname growing up, which may or may not be a lie, little is revealed about O’Neal’s background or even his deeper impulses, beyond self-preservation. He seems principally in thrall to authority, of which he has precious little, hence impersonating a federal officer. On the one hand, it’s arguably shrewd to elide an overdrawn backstory and present a man so often camouflaged that he ultimately emerges hidden even from himself. But then Stanfield has to fill in certain gaps. His necessarily physical performance, the perpetual discomfort bound up in his wiry frame, ensures we never feel at ease while he is on screen; thinly held together, the 40-year-old O’Neal is visibly haunted by the truths he cannot face. He holds that tenseness above all in his body, but he just as slickly calibrates his trapped, fundamentally divided condition in a weary, somber gaze.
The reliably transformative Kaluuya obviously has the fleshier role. Despite not looking very much like Hampton, the actor robustly captures his titanic dynamism and the more reticent man behind it, most tenderly on display in scenes with his pregnant fiancée Deborah (a fantastic Dominique Fishback), the activist better known now as Akua Njeri. Likewise, Ashton Sanders, Dominique Thorne, and Algee Smith as composite Panther comrades, all deliver confident, magnetic performances in minor roles; a steely Sanders especially shines in a seamless transition from the troubled teenagers he usually plays to a poised young mod here.
Kaluuya and Stanfield in particular belong to an interconnected genealogy of contemporary Black political cinema gone increasingly mainstream: they, of course, share one of the most memorable scenes in Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film Get Out; Stanfield then went on to star in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018), while Kaluuya had a supporting role in Black Panther (2018), directed by Ryan Coogler, a producer on this film. Stanfield also acted for King before in the satirical short LaZercism (2017), about correcting “racial glaucoma,” a medical affliction preventing white people from seeing Black people. But while Judas, a stirring, forthright portrait of the Panthers—remarkably released by a major studio—joins their ranks, for purely cinematic purposes O’Neal and Hampton’s scenes together are too few and a little too brief to emphasize the depth of the moral transgression. By now this has become something of a pattern. Maybe O’Neal can escape with less definition given his slippery character, but his relationship with Hampton, too, is vaguely drawn. In most respects meticulously realized, the film shies away from too much dramatic elaboration, and often gets away with it because the premise (the spy who lost his soul) is both familiar and innately cinematic. Perhaps reasonably, the emotional stakes have almost nothing to do with O’Neal. After all, he is a man alienated, seemingly without the one thing most precious to the Panthers: community. But for a man at the center of everything, he comes to far less use.
Despite these narrative opacities, the film is exquisitely directed by King, who harnesses Sean Bobbit’s cinematography with its stark grays and crisp night visuals to give the film an overarching grimness. The score from Mark Isham and jazz trombonist Craig Harris clarify this tale as a mournful one, with moments of beauty—the thoughtfully scripted and acted romance between Njeri and Hampton, for instance—but still animated by grief. For all its compelling energy and suspense, it’s impossible to shake off that central melancholy, all the interrupted possibility. Yet, although King sensitively attends to that loss, something of the man himself is also lost. With his displacement comes less room to consider, in material, meaningful ways, Hampton’s still quite radical views; his anti-imperialism, his socialism seem somehow muted; frankly, this reckoning has yet to happen even for more presumably palatable figures, like Martin Luther King Jr.
Judas squarely confronts how ruthless and sinister the FBI’s crusade against Black activists truly was. Typically, nonfiction has done and continues to do this bolder work, as in The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) and more recently in MLK/FBI (2020), which specifically points out how American cinema popularly lionized the FBI’s murky tactics against perceived threats. By telling this story through the eyes of the weaker man, the film possibly invites us to interrogate our own tacit allegiances or complacency. Certainly, one thing made abundantly clear—and what Hampton himself believed—is that, if they are not vigilant, the oppressed can themselves become agents of the very forces that promise their destruction. If the film is occasionally undermined by its own architecture—both men are subject, at times, to frustrating remoteness—Judas remains a vital and heartfelt, if long overdue requiem.