Fred Hampton is looking for revolutionaries. William O’Neal is trying to stay out of prison. In Shaka King’s vivid “Judas and the Black Messiah,” these seemingly very different men will be set on a terrible collision course for each other. One part Hampton biopic, one part unnerving portion of American (and all-too-recent) history, King’s drama is a nuanced portrait of a people, a place, and a betrayal that has never before received such a full telling. Bolstered by major performances by Daniel Kaluuya (as Hampton, the visionary chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late ’60s) and Lakeith Stanfield (as O’Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrated the BPP and Hampton’s inner circle), “Judas and the Black Messiah” makes the Hampton saga feel as urgent — and tragic — as ever.
King, directing only his second feature film, deftly handles the complex script he co-wrote with Will Berson from a story by the Lucas brothers, Keith and Kenneth, one that layers time, place, perspective, and mood. Set in a richly imagined late-’60s Chicago, “Judas and the Black Messiah” opens with Stanfield as William O’Neal, attempting to unpack his misdeeds via a careful recreation of his own televised interview. King’s film blends together both that recreation — and one featuring Kaluuya as Chairman Fred — with actual archival footage to lay out the scene. The Black Panthers were rising, even if public perception of them was tainted by the U.S. government, intent on casting them solely as agitators, even terrorists, who threatened the country’s well-being.
Intent on taking down the Party and leaders like Hampton, the “Black messiah” of the film’s title, the FBI launched a multi-layered attack on the group. One fortuitous addition: petty criminal William O’Neal, drafted into snitch service after being (again) arrested for running the kind of scheme that hinted at his ability to slip into unexpected disguises (he pretended to be a federal agent to rob a group of Chicago heavies, pretty bold). Given a choice between jail and working for the FBI, Bill goes for the one that (at first) seems like the easier ask.
Thrust into the world of the Black Panthers, Bill is shocked by both their organization and their strength, slipping uneasily into their ranks, only to find himself taken in (maybe?) by their mission and Chairman Fred’s charisma and conviction. As his visibility in the Party grows, so does his apparent allegiance to the group, even as his grim FBI handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) asks more and more of him. The real William O’Neal didn’t just become a member of the group, he became a high-ranking official — head of security at one point — and his prodigious rise within it allowed him the chance to not only sell them out repeatedly, but to irrevocably put into motion events that would eventually lead to tremendous tragedy.
Layered into Bill’s ascension is the story of Chairman Fred, just 20 years old when he became the leader of the Chicago branch. (Last year, Kelvin Harrison Jr. portrayed Hampton in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” dramatizing a story that doesn’t even make it into King’s film; that’s how much material he’s got to work with here.) At over two hours, the film’s running time assures a meaty watch, and King and his screenwriters deliver plenty of that, unspooling both a fraught story and a wider view of a historical period in one shot.
Mostly, though, it’s Kaluuya and Stanfield — two actors who seem destined to be hailed for career-best turns with every subsequent project — who make “Judas and the Black Messiah” such an incendiary watch. No one plays twitchy quite like Stanfield (and, wow, does William have reason to twitch), but he’s never broad in his mannerisms, and few working actors today can telegraph quite so much emotion with near-imperceptible changes in their facial expressions. The slightest shift in his mouth, a prolonged blink, even the way he turns his head is always layered with meaning, and King’s film allows Stanfield the chance to work through a variety of emotions, not just from scene to scene, but moment to moment.
As Chairman Fred, Kaluuya is, at least initially, at his most bombastic, and King and Berson’s choice to introduce him through his speeches and public appearances is a wise one. We meet the public Fred, the confrontational Fred, the confident Fred, the seemingly unafraid Fred, before spending more time with the more emotional (and even shy) Fred as the film goes on. It’s a nuanced, careful part, embodied by an actor who can more than ably capture every inch of a man, far beyond decades-old public perceptions.
Which is perhaps the film’s greatest strength: At every turn, “Judas and the Black Messiah” doesn’t just allow the space to consider the motivations of both its primary characters, but actively seeks out those shades of gray. Fred is a blazing visionary who routinely calls for nothing less than a total overthrow of American politics, but he’s also a tender soul who gets skittish around the girl he likes and is the first person to show up to comfort a grieving mother. William is a rat and a snitch, the kind of guy who revels in the spoils his ill deeds earn him (keep an eye out for his evolving wardrobe, at least the one he sports away from the Panthers), but also demands justice for a fallen brother. (Even in that statement, there is complexity: At what point, the film wonders, does William actually start to see the Panthers as his people?)
Similar generosity is meted out to other characters, including Fishback’s Deborah Johnson, her own mix of strength and sweetness, and young Panthers like Jimmy (Ashton Sanders) and Jake (Algee Smith). Hell, even Roy — who makes a big impression early on when he tells William that “you can’t cheat your way to equality” — gets some added dimension, his unease with the infiltration growing as each minute ticks by, even if it’s mostly rooted in his sense of self-preservation. (The film’s one outsized monster is Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover, but while the character is thinly written, the typically likable Sheen adds such revulsion to the part that he’s mostly fascinating to watch.)
King’s film closes out with a series of postscripts that only add to the pain of the history portrayed on screen — and its enduring timeliness, in both heartening and horrifying ways — and highlight how meticulously “Judas and the Black Messiah” has translated true-life troubles to the big screen. Often, such postscripts dilute the power of the films they conclude, hinting at other stories yearning to be told. “Judas and the Black Messiah” has no such problems, and while the legacy of Hampton’s work and O’Neal’s crimes should inspire more explorations, King’s contribution is already a lasting one.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release it in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, February 12.
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