A solid, straight-laced, Oscar-friendly film about a Black revolutionary movement
Chairman Fred is either a name you’ve never heard or a person you can’t forget. Which means that Judas and the Black Messiah will either be a vivid primer or a better-late-than-never public reckoning. Either way, it’s a handsome addition to the cinema of black resistance. The subject is the 1969 political assassination of Chicago activist Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. But the real topic is the age-old struggle between revolutionary ideas and a suffocating status quo that seeks to sabotage dissent. It’s all there in the title: a piercing and frankly baadasssss declaration that catapults this true story into the realm of myth.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Directed by: Shaka King
Written by: Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
Running time: 126 min
Is the religious comparison overheated? Of course it is, and that’s the point: the FBI planted a mole inside the BPP, a street hustler named Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) whom they blackmailed into being their inside man, because they wanted to keep tabs on a young ascendant brother named Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). And, after earning his trust, O’Neal ultimately betrayed Hampton by abetting his state-sanctioned murder. The Feds’ biggest fear was, in their words, a “black messiah” who would rise up against America’s majority-white power structure. If most of us don’t know Hampton as well as other ’60s civil rights leaders like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s because Hampton was massacred when he was 21, nipped in the bud before he could truly bloom. There was no messianic complex here, just a man whose very existence rattled the rabidly paranoid authorities.
Shaka King and his screenwriters cleverly turned their Hampton biopic into a conspiracy thriller. It’s a strong pivot, since it turns the potentially preachy story of a life cut short into a street-smart parable about personal accountability, complicity, regret, shame, and ultimately despair. O’Neal is the film’s true protagonist, a flawed hero pinched by circumstance into being a tortured villain. He becomes our eyes as we watch a confident but nascent leader transform into a fiery freedom-fighting phenomenon, his indignance growing along with his increasing, and increasingly loyal, followers.
“It’s not a question of violence or non-violence,” he would say. “It’s a question of resistance to fascism or non-existence within fascism.” Hampton wasn’t about bloodshed; he was about social justice. As a leader in the BPP, he promoted community access to medical clinics, free breakfasts, legal aid and education. But what really spooked the FBI is his “rainbow coalition,” Hampton’s unlikely outreach to other disenfranchised groups like White southerners, Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and Asians. He gave speeches in rooms with a confederate flag, because he knew that their common struggles weren’t racially based—they were fundamentally class-conscious. And his silver-tongued rhetoric was more than persuasive. It was electric. “He could sell salt to a slug,” says O’Neal.
Kaluuya plays Hampton as a secret weapon, with heavy-lidded eyes that harden to steel and a lilting drawl that quickly turns volcanic. His stealthily peacocking performance is deliciously mesmeric. Stanfield is equally powerful as Hampton’s inverse, an anxious man trapped by circumstance into being amoral, desperate to blend in or better yet escape, but forced to bear witness to the kind of principled life he knows he’ll never live.
The other characters aren’t nearly as riveting. Jesse Plemons plays the smooth-talking Fed who has a glimmer of woke self-doubt, but quickly course-corrects. Deborah Johnson is Thomspon’s sweet, nobly suffering girlfriend, occasionally spiky but mostly an emotional balm. And Martin Sheen pops up as a comically grotesque J. Edgar Hoover, alarmingly lathered with facial prosthetics while he spews on-brand racial obscenities about white people being raped and pillaged unless they protect “Our way of life.” But whatever: the peripheral cast is all in service anyway to the film’s main duo and their respective emotional arcs.
Judas is the kind of movie that studios stopped making years ago. It’s a throwback to Sidney Lumet and ’70s crime flicks that exposed the rot in the system, as well as their righteous fury at a world that feels systemically broken. In a way, that’s also the film’s main flaw: there’s something oddly square about the polished production. King’s movie feels very within-the-lines, a robust and muscular drama that’s also strangely conventional. Its fight-the-power story beats and tragic-downfall plot points are as mainstream-predictable as the bloody climax that the title telegraphs. That’s not to say the film isn’t effective; it’s just not indelible.
Black filmmakers today, from old dogs like Spike Lee to next-gen auteurs like Jordan Peele are making some of the most profoundly surreal stories about the Black experience. It’s hard not to see O’Neal’s secret ruse without thinking about Ron Stallworth’s gonzo infiltration of the KKK in BlacKkKlansman. Or to watch Kaluuya and Stanfield share the screen again and not remember their harrowing interactions in the terrifyingly absurdist Get Out. What would Donald Glover or Justin Simien or Boots Riley have done with Fred Hampton? Then again, maybe King’s straightlaced, Oscar-friendly approach is the kind of structurally reassuring “prestige” cinema that will widen its audience. Which could be its most revolutionary impact.