I am a sucker for a good political conscience movie, and with today’s divisiveness amid Black Lives Matter protests and insurrectionists storming the Capitol, it’s worth catching up on historical events that show, depressingly, nothing much has changed.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a gripping film that has echoes of a Cold War spy thriller, except this war features a covert government operation against one of its own citizens. Fred Hampton was the leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, a charismatic leader who was deemed a dangerous threat with his ability to inspire collaboration to challenge systemic racism and governmental oppression.
Daniel Kaluuya gives a scintillating performance as Hampton. Kaluuya has quickly become one of the best screen actors around, the sort of performer whose name on the cast list is enough to guarantee a film is worth watching. He won the supporting actor award at the Golden Globes and is the hot favorite for an Oscar.
If Hampton is the Black Messiah, LaKeith Stanfield’s William O’Neal is Judas. We first see him impersonating an FBI agent in order to steal a car. When he is caught, FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers to keep him out of jail if he agrees to infiltrate the Panthers and become an informant on Hampton’s activities. O’Neal takes the 30 pieces of silver without much hesitation. He is not a man whose world view allows for moral nuance. He is just trying to survive. Over time, however, as he becomes closer to Hampton, O’Neal becomes swayed by the message.
It is important to point out one thing the film doesn’t really make clear. While both these actors are young (Kaluuya is 30, Stanfield, 29), O’Neal was only 17 when he was recruited, and Hampton was assassinated at 21. Stansfield’s O’Neal, all twitching paranoia and insecurity, is terrific and being aware of O’Neal’s age adds to the depth of the performance.
Kaluuya brilliantly captures Hampton’s charisma. We see him actively helping the community, including launching a free breakfast for children program (which the FBI branded a nefarious program aimed at brainwashing children). Hampton is a man driven by righteous ideals and there is a quiet confidence that will not sway him from his path. But this is no aloof messiah. He is comfortable around his friends, a normal man of the people. He is cutely shy when he begins his relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who eventually becomes his wife. Their love story serves to both ground the man and to show why he was loved.
The man, though, is always conscious of the weight of being a “messiah,” and he carries an air of resignation to the inevitable sacrifice.
As O’Neal rises through the Black Panther ranks, he begins to question his role and begins to question Mitchell. Plemons’ character is wonderfully calm throughout his dealings with O’Neal. He smiles, invites O’Neal to expensive restaurants, and even to his own home. But there he has a disquieting undertone, and when O’Neal thinks about quitting, Mitchell’s quiet threat is all the more menacing because of the calmness.
One of the film’s best scenes takes place at a public meeting where Hampton gives a fiery speech that rouses the crowd, like a preacher offering salvation. O’Neal watches and we see on his face that he understands Hampton’s appeal. Will he become a believer? Then he sees Mitchell, in disguise, among the crowd. The two men look at each other through the gathered throng and their wordless stare conveys multitudes. Stansfield, especially, does wonders throughout the film using his eyes and mannerisms to let us into his inner turmoil.
While the film has many marvelous scenes, not everything works. Martin Sheen, hidden under a ton of prosthetics, is J. Edgar Hoover. Honestly, his scenes are fairly superfluous to the plot. At this point, everyone knows Hoover was a pretty reprehensible human being and racist. His scenes distract from the action rather than add anything to the story.
As the film moves toward its conclusion, we see O’Neal’s conflict. In historical dramas, it is hard to generate tension because we know the end result, but director Shaka King does a good job of keeping the tension high and we pull for O’Neal to somehow see the light, to save Hampton. But, of course, that would be a revisionist fantasy.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is riveting and well-acted, but it is also an intensely sad film. The systemic racism of 1960s white America was designed to oppress minorities, and we see how the darker instruments of that system actively suppress — or eliminate voices of dissent, often by turning Blacks against their own people. Sadly, many of the movie’s themes resonate today. Have we come as far as we would like to think?
The film opens and closes with clips from an interview with the real Bill O’Neal, and we see him for what he was — a young man who was used as a tool by forces he was ill-equipped to recognize, let alone resist. And that may be the saddest thing of all.
Note: “Judas and the Black Messiah” is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Both Kaluuya and Stansfield are nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Which begs the question, how can they both be supporting? Kaluuya is a towering presence and the films moral center, but Stansfield is really the main protagonist. It is his story. However, both men deserve recognition, as does Fishback who was overlooked for supporting actress.