Judas and the Black MessiahReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/12/21 11:38:23
In the late 1960s, Fred Hampton was, in the eyes of the F.B.I., one of the most dangerous men in America. With his galvanizing combination of righteous anger and fierce rhetoric, he spoke out against racism, poverty and other social ills and preached a form of social revolution that inspired and united groups of people that would never have otherwise come together and challenged the existing power structure and those ruled over it. Hampton’s rise and the increasingly elaborate efforts by the government to bring him down by any means necessary are at the center of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Shaka King’s mesmerizing docudrama that not only expertly brings to life an almost unbelievable sliver of recent American history but makes it relevant to the turbulent times that we currently live in as well.As the film starts, the focus is actually on William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a young car thief who modus operandi is to utilize a fake FBI badge and a lot of bravado to confiscate a car under the premise that it was reported stolen and then speed off before his victims realize that they have been duped. One night, the ploy doesn’t work and O’Neal is arrested and facing charges of both car theft and impersonating a federal agent. This brings him to the attention of actual FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who is impressed enough with O’Neal’s audacity to offer him a deal—either he can spend a few years in prison for impersonating a FBI agent or actually begin working for the Feds by infiltrating the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and reporting back on their activities in order to help them build a case against the chapter’s leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
With no real choice in the manner, O’Neal agrees to the job and quickly manages to fluke his way into the job of head of security. This allows him great access to Hampton and to information that he passes on to Mitchell at their regular meetings. Although Mitchell is pleased with what he is getting, he inevitably passes on the pressure to get more that he himself is getting from his superiors, including J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) himself and O’Neal, who has not been properly trained in how to go about being a double agent, begins to feel a growing sense of conflict within, recognizing both Hampton’s incredible way of bringing together and inspiring people and the FBI’s increasingly violently and ham-handed efforts to shut him and his supporters down. And yet, if he stops handing over useful information, he himself will wind up in prison and this is what compels him to keep it up, including helping to set up the events that would unfold on December 4, 1969 when (Spoiler Alert), the combined forces of the FBI and Chicago law enforcement raided Hampton’s apartment, killing him and a fellow Panther in an assault that the Feds and police tried to present as justified, even though an analysis showed that they fired upwards of 99 shots at a sleeping Hampton but could only find evidence of a single shot from a gun belonging to the other Panther.
Hampton’s story has been told before, most notably in the powerful 1971 documentary “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” and what sets “Judas and the Black Messiah” apart from them is the way that it pulls back the curtain to show how O’Neal, who would publicly admit to working for the FBI to bring Hampton down, was also a victim of the very same authorities. As laid out in the screenplay by King and co-writer Will Berson, it is at least somewhat of a fair fight in regards to Hampton as we see him uniting disparate groups—including rival gangs, militant blacks and those who proudly hang the Confederate flag in their meetings—by pointing out to them that whatever their differences, they are all being oppressed by socioeconomic forces that they could successfully combat by joining together. Even when the danger moves from the rhetorical to the literal and the cops starts firing on Panther headquarters in broad daylight, he will not bow. Meanwhile, O’Neal is becoming more and more aware of how specious the government’s claims against Hampton are—such as their claims that there was no difference between the Black Panthers and the Klan—but is ultimately not strong enough to do anything to prevent the incidents that would go on to haunt him for the rest of his life.
These events are brought to life by King, making his feature directorial debut, is brought breathlessly to life in a manner that recounts the story without succumbing to the tendency that some films like this have to simply become the celebration of a martyr. Instead, Hampton comes across as a real individual instead of as a tragic symbol and this is largely due to the incredible performance by Kaluuya. Whether delivering his passionate speeches demanding unity or going through quieter and more intimate moments away from the front line, Kaluuya is absolutely electric as he suggests the magnetism that the real Hampton must have had that caused him to inspire hope and fear in so many people in such a brief period of time. While his role as O’Neal is not quite as flashy, Stanfield is just as watchable as his character goes from being a brash hustler to the increasingly guilt-ridden man stuck in a position where his survival depends on his betrayal of those who took him in to their confidence. Representing the forces trying to bring Hampton down, Plemons is excellent as the representation of an entire government trying to squelch a voice suggesting that things can indeed change before it is too late. In a couple of scenes, Martin Sheen is good as Hoover but is hampered a bit by a questionable makeup job, though one nowhere near as awkward seen on Leonardo DiCaprio in the final scenes of the woeful “J. Edgar.” In fact, the only casting decision that doesn’t really pan out is the choice to have Cleveland play the role of Chicago, though I can understand why the Windy City might have declined the opportunity to play itself here since it doesn’t exactly come off well.“Judas and the Black Messiah” may be history but it is alive in a way that other such films, including Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (whose story was roughly contemporaneous to the one seen here), simply aren’t. King knows that many of the struggles that Hampton fought and died to help overcome are still in existence today. However, by resisting the urge to play up these similarities or to overly mythologize Hampton, the film becomes even stronger as a result. Alternately thrilling and enraging, this is a film that is likely to open eyes and minds and perhaps inspire those unfamiliar with Hampton to look further into his life and work and use his life and death as inspiration for themselves to fight for much-needed change.
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