THE STORY – Offered a plea deal by the FBI, William O’Neal infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton.
THE CAST – Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Lil Rey Howery & Martin Sheen
THE TEAM – Shaka King (Director/Writer) & Will Berson (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 126 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
Somber music plays over the Warner Bros. logo. We know the movie we are about to see is inspired by true events. And if you’re not aware of what those true events are, the film’s title, “Judas And The Black Messiah,” serves as a spoiler itself. Like “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” we know the inevitable conclusion of Shaka King’s latest film but that doesn’t mean the journey isn’t worth taking, nor the message worth receiving. An enraging story of revolution and betrayal, “Judas And The Black Messiah” is a simmering and powerful film that ranks as one of the year’s best.
It’s 1989, and former Black Panther party member William O’Neill (Lakeith Stanfield) is being interviewed for the PBS Documentary “Eyez On The Prize 2.” He gets asked during the interview, “What would you tell your son about what you did back then?” Suddenly, we are transported back to Chicago in 1968, a time when J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) was preaching to FBI agents about how dangerous the Black Panthers were and how they needed to prevent the rise of a Black messiah or otherwise risk losing their way of life as the perceived dominant race in society.
We see a younger O’Neill impersonate a federal officer in an effort to steal a car. While he’s successful, he gets arrested by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons). With the threat of serious jail-time hanging over him, O’Neill strikes a deal with Mitchell to infiltrate the Black Panther party and tear it apart from the inside. How will he do that? By getting close to party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). However, as O’Neill gets deeper and deeper into the Black Panther party and pressure begins to build on both sides, the young man must determine how far he’s willing to go either for his own personal freedom or for a cause which he is slowly becoming a believer in.
Lakeith Stanfield has never been better before than he is here, playing the challenging role of a duplicitous man we should not be rooting for. However, it is a testament to Lakeith’s talent that he still manages to find small pockets of empathy for O’Neill in his self-doubt, fear and desperation. Caught in an impossible circumstance where for him, every action feels like a lose-lose scenario, O’Neill’s stress from being undercover is reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s on-edge exhaustion from another undercover cop film, “The Departed” (coincidentally, also starring Martin Sheen). However, as O’Neill says early on to Mitchell, “A badge is scarier than a gun,” meaning the threat of the police to him as a Black man is more terrifying than what could possibly become of him if his true motivations are found out within the party.
When we’re first introduced to Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton, the first lines we hear him say are, “I don’t need no mic. Can y’all hear me?” Kaluuya definitely does not need a mic and yes, we can hear him loud and clear as his performance as Fred Hampton is a towering transformation. Despite being ten years older than the real Fred Hampton during this time, Kaluuya’s speech pattern, voice & mannerisms are a complete divergence from any other performance we’ve seen the thirty-one-year-old actor deliver yet, proving once again that he’s one of the most talented young actors of his generation. When he’s delivering any one of his many speeches in the film, Kaluuya is absolutely magnetic and commands the screen with his every word & gesture. We are the captive audience Fred Hampton is speaking to. We are the one’s he is demanding to carry on his legacy, to assemble and fight back against oppression and hatred. Hampton believed power lay with the people and he would teach that “War is politics with bloodshed. Politics is war without bloodshed.” His ability to unite different groups, races, people are the hallmarks of a true leader. Seeing actual footage of Hampton at the very end of the film before the final credits roll only speaks to how great Kaluuya’s performance is. It’s a full embodiment of not just the man himself but everything he stood for. If there’s any justice in this world (something the film makes perfectly clear there’s very little of), Kaluuya will be recognized with every award there is for his magnificent portrayal.
Outside of the two main stars from Shaka King’s latest, the supporting cast in “Judas And The Black Messiah” is equally as strong, helping to shape this into one of the best ensemble casts of the year. “You are a poet,” Deborah Johnson (“Project Power’s” Dominique Fishback) tells Hampton as she’s initially drawn to his words and charisma (who wouldn’t be?). Starting off as his speechwriter and then becoming the mother to his child, she is the heart of the movie and Shaka King wisely gives Fishback many opportunities to win over the hearts of the audience just as Deborah does Hampton’s. Fishback has such a sweet and tender chemistry with Kaluuya that when we get to her final closeup in the film, her eyes fighting with every fiber in her being to hold back tears, we are gutted and astounded by the affection within Fishback’s performance.
And Jesse Plemmons warrants credit too, as the wolf in sheep’s clothing who is setting everything in motion for O’Neill behind the scenes and is the only one who knows his true identity. Mitchell is eerily calm and frank in his reasoning and justification for how he is using O’Neill. It’s not until Sheen’s Hoover starts applying pressure on Mitchell to increase his methods to put a permanent end to Fred Hampton (“Prison is a temporary solution”) and thus, what he thinks will bring about the end of the Black Panthers, that Plemmons’ performance gets taken to another level. Christian teachings tell us to vilify Judas for betraying Jesus Christ, which led to Judas’s suicide and Jesus’ crucifixion. However, the layered and character-focused script for “Judas And The Black Messiah” asks us to understand the morality of these men, why they did what they did and what future generations can learn from their sins. In this regard, the work of the aforementioned Stanfield and Plemmons deserves to be given more contemplation and recognition than a simple generalization.
Although not his directorial debut, “Judas And The Black Messiah” represents a large leap forward for filmmaker Shaka King. He’s significantly aided by Sean Bobbit’s smooth and striking cinematography. His camerawork creates high contrasts that accentuate the film’s bright colors and blows out the whites making for some memorable images, most notably during an intense shootout at the Black Panther party headquarters. Kristan Sprague’s editing always keeps the story moving forward with a constant sense of momentum, allowing us to pause only when it serves either the characters or the plot. However, if there’s one area where this movie falls just shy of greatness, it is with the music. Too often, the score doesn’t feel right for the tone of the scene. There are many moments like this throughout. However, in one scene in particular where Hampton is having a meeting with The Crowns in an effort to unite their different groups under one revolutionary army, there is an endless series of plucks on a bass guitar. The scene is rife with tension, both in the writing and in the performances, but such a bizarre choice in the score robs it of any heightened level of power it could’ve had.
The police (or pigs, as they’re often called in the movie) wouldn’t be ready for the kind of organization that Hampton wanted to bring not just for Black people but for, as he says, a rainbow coalition of every color. We started to get a sense of that this past summer when the murder of George Floyd rallied the country together, no matter who they were or where they came from, to take a stand against police abuse and proclaim to the world that “Black Lives Matter.” When we get to the end of Shaka King’s angry yet rousing feature, the real-life O’Neill tells the interviewer in the PBS documentary, “I think I’ll let history speak for me.” Well, history has spoken and the promised land is still in sight. While many await the arrival of a new messiah who will bring us there, Fred Hampton reminds us all that “where there’s people, there’s power.” And that’s the influence of “Judas And The Black Messiah;” that, we the people, are the one’s who will peacefully dismantle these systemic institutions of power, ushering in a new era of revolution that will bring justice to the life and memory of Fred Hampton.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Daniel Kaluuya’s towering & transformative performance as Fred Hampton. Lakeith Stanfield finds the humanity in a traitor. Sean Bobitt’s striking cinematography. The story’s undeniable power and its ties to today.