Premise: Bill O’Neal infiltrates the Black Panther Party per FBI Agent Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover. As Party Chairman Fred Hampton ascends, falling for a fellow revolutionary en route, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul
I couldn’t help but think of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous quote from his 1962 novel “Mother Night” while watching Judas and the Black Messiah: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Vonnegut’s protagonist secretly worked to undermine the Nazis while still wearing the uniform, but was publicly and privately chastised for the rest of his life because of it. The novel, along with director Shaka King’s newest film Judas and the Black Messiah, brings to light an interesting moral conundrum: will we ultimately be remembered for our contributions to a cause, or our best intentions that we keep under the surface?
In Judas, King (along with a screenplay he co-wrote with Will Berson) tells the story of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968, his attempts to unify various factions around Chicago, the Panthers’ fight against a racist Chicago police force, and his eventual death at their hands. Caught in the midst of this is Bill O’Neal, a street criminal-turned-informant who befriends Hampton and joins the Panthers in an attempt to inform the FBI on any potential wrong-doing. Along the way, O’Neal succumbs to Hampton’s charm and the Panthers’ mission, and the film wrestles with his ethical dilemma as he continues to betray his comrades. One of King and Berson’s smartest decisions is to make the film less of a straightforward biography of Hampton and more of a film centered around his impact on those around him.
Hampton is portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya (Widows, Get Out), who shows the leader’s gifts for fiery, rousing public speaking, along with a softer, more gentle side when he’s not on stage. Besides adopting Hampton’s baritone voice and mannerisms, Kaluuya infuses Hampton with an electricity that makes it easy to see why he was so beloved, and so feared by the authorities. One of the film’s best scenes occurs at a rally where Hampton gathers various local groups – and one undercover FBI agent – in one room to rally around their common enemy. I found myself wishing the entire film was simply a montage of Kaluuya giving speeches to a crowded audience. Thankfully, King shows the softer side of Hampton as well, including his relationship with fellow Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, also incredible). Kaluuya has already filled his young career with wide-ranging, dynamic work, but Hampton may stand out as his best performance.
Playing Hampton’s foil is Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, Sorry to Bother You) as Bill O’Neal. Stanfield provides a nice counterbalance to Kaluuya’s bold assuredness by making him more skeptical. It’s here that the screenplay suffers from a character perspective, as we’re left parsing O’Neal’s true mindset; has he fully bought in to what Hampton is selling, or is it all a façade to keep his FBI handler (Jesse Plemons) satisfied? We’re shown before the end credits that O’Neal continued to serve as an informant well into the 70’s, which makes his uneasiness over his betrayal all the more confusing in retrospect.
Relegating an engaging figure like Hampton to a supporting role would normally be a momentum killer for a film, but Judas manages to continue its engaging pace, including an extended segment when Hampton goes to prison. King and Berson fill the story not only with O’Neal’s intrigue, but show a behind-the-scenes look at the depths the FBI, and especially J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), went to to bring Hampton down. The mood of the film is complemented by Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, lighting each scene with glossy greens and oranges, and the jazzy-funky score by Craig Harris and Mark Isham.
Kaluuya and Stanfield both give incredible performances throughout Judas, but the two spend a shockingly small amount of time conversing together. They can often be found in the same room but hardly ever get close enough to share their inner thoughts. The film never lulls in excitement, but when you have two arresting performers in the same film, it’s a missed opportunity tosee much interaction between them. Hampton’s story is a worthwhile one to be shown on screen, not only because it is inherently dramatic, but because of its relevance to the struggles of minorities today. Thank goodness he has a steady hand in King to tell it, and capable performances to show who he really was.
Judas and the Black Messiah is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until March 14.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.