Judas and the Black Messiah

After William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) was bagged for car theft while impersonating an FBI agent, he was recruited by Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers.  Bill ended up on its chairman, Fred Hampton’s (Daniel Kaluuya) Security team, and began to fall under his spell.  But when imprisonment alone was not enough for J. Edgar Hoover, Mitchell turned up the heat, forcing O’Neal into a corner in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Laura's Review: B+

If you don’t know about the 1969 murder of Chicago Black Panthers Chairman Fred Hampton at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover, prepare to be shocked.  If you do know the story, prepare to watch this film with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.  Cowriter (with Will Berson)/director Shaka King’s film can be choppy when dealing with secondary characters (he drops in Panther Jake Winters’ (Algee Smith, "Detroit") shootout with police with no context, for example, nor do we get an understanding of how Mitchell’s initial queasiness with Hoover’s agenda turned into complete buy-in), but when his focus is on the primary two, the movie says everything it needs to.

A large amount of the credit goes to Kaluuya whose charismatic performance sweeps you away.  King was wise to show us both sides of the man – the firebrand with the smarts to form a Rainbow Coalition (his appeal to a group of neo-Confederates is like Bernie Sanders talking to Trump voters post election) and the shy romantic courting Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, "Project Power," HBO's 'The Deuce').  King doesn’t shy away from some of Hampton’s more incendiary words, but he’s laid their groundwork in actions by local police whose objective is far from protecting or serving (in one of the film’s more horrifying scenes, they bait the Panthers, clear out their HQ and then torch the building with gasoline).

As O’Neal, shown in King’s bookending snippets of his only interview in PBS’s ‘Eyes on the Prize II,” Stanfield is alternately haunted or terrified, the latter after hearing about the fate of a rat from Panther George Sams (Terayle Hill, "Love, Simon").  The man who gets a car from the F.B.I. in return for having stolen one for his work keeping tabs on Hampton has always been an enigma, claiming no allegiance to the Panthers yet carrying guilt for the rest of his short life after drawing a map of Hampton’s apartment and drugging him so he wouldn’t awaken during the fateful raid.  King is perhaps kinder to the man than is warranted, but only O’Neal would really know.

Robin's Review: B

In the late 60s, William O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), a career petty criminal in Chicago, was picked up on an interstate transport violation, a federal crime. To avoid 5 years in jail, he agrees to be recruited by the FBI. His job: infiltrate the city’s Black Panther organization and provide intelligence for, ultimately, the assassination of BP leader Fred Hampton (David Kaluuya) in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

As I watched director and co-writer Shaka King’s second feature film, I had the strong feeling that I was seeing a reverse negative of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman (2018).” I say “reverse negative” because, in that earlier film, the good guys are the police investigating the bad guy KKK, with John David Washington as undercover cop Ron Stallwirth. He and his colleagues set out to infiltrate and subvert the racist white supremacist Klan in the early 1970s.

Shaka King travels much of the same ground, time-wise, as Lee’s film, but the reversal shows the Black Panther Party, with the charismatic 21-year old chapter leader Hampton, as the good guys and the FBI - personified by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and his mindless drive to eliminate the “violence-prone organization seeking to overthrow the government by revolutionary means” - as the very bad guys.

The Panthers, under Hampton, formed the Rainbow Coalition and succeeded in recruiting the white Young Patriots Organization and the Latino Young Lords gangs to their cause and do good things to care for the people. The despotic Hoover, of course, saw this as a danger that must be stopped. The result was a young man, setting out to make life better for his people, being murdered and that hope he fomented snuffed out.

Of the film’s two stars, David Kaluuya dominates the screen as Fred Hampton, conveying the young man’s dedication and intensity of cause. LaKeith Stanfield comes a close second, but his character is without redemption in his betrayal of Hampton and his own people – out of selfishness and greed.

Dominique Fishback, as Hampton’s lover/wife/BFF Deborah Johnson tempers the militant activist with a softer, kinder side and, in doing so, helps focus on his complexity. Other characters, like Hoover, are a caricatures and mostly two-dimensional. Jesse Plemons, as FBI agent Roy Mitchell, running O’Neil’s undercover op, seems to waffle from wholehearted commitment to self doubt about his mission

I did not know much about Fred Hampton, except that, back in the 60s, he was a rising star fallen too soon. Shaka King makes up for my lack of knowledge and does an honest and fair job telling a story about an important time in our country.

Warner Brothers will release "Judas and the Black Messiah" in theaters and on HBO MAX on 2/12/2021.