A true story of an informant in the Black Panther Party, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is powerful in performance but mediocre in storytelling.
Telling the Black Panther Party’s story and the civil rights movement in the late 1960s is, unfortunately, still an effective means of storytelling today. There are many reasons why, but the biggest is simple — the fight for civil rights continues to this day. The change that has happened in the past 50 years has been monumental, but it isn’t over yet. With Judas and the Black Messiah, we see the fight for civil rights from a different point of view. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival before debuting in theaters and on HBO Max later this month, Judas and the Black Messiah is a story that gets to the core of the civil rights movement, both in the 1960s and in the 2020s.
William O’Neal pulls out an FBI badge in a bar in 1966, walking up to a gang member. O’Neal tells the man he is needed outside, but the slip of a hat reveals the youthful face of LaKeith Stanfield, and the con is revealed. O’Neal impersonates FBI officers in order to rob them blind. But after being caught, O’Neal is told he has two options. Either he can face prison time for impersonating a federal agent, or he can become a federal informant, infiltrating Chicago’s Black Panther Party chapter.
Fred Hampton, the chairman of the party and the face of the civil rights movement, is looking to make his mark on Chicago and America as a whole. In front of cameras and crowds, Daniel Kaluuya’s intense eyes reach the audience. “You don’t fight capitalism with Black capitalism,” the British Kaluuya says in a pitch-perfect impression of Hampton, “you fight capitalism with socialism.” In one of his earliest lines, Hampton explains his ethos to the world.
But anyone who knows just the smallest detail of Hampton’s life (or even the meaning of the title Judas and the Black Messiah) will know what happens next. Hampton’s political rise leads to his eventual downfall. A downfall that comes at the hand of a confidante and friend… a downfall at the hands of FBI informant William O’Neal. It’s a Greek tragedy in almost every sense, a slow-burning tale with a pitiful ending for all involved.
Shaka King, directing his sophomore feature, depicts Hampton and O’Neal’s parallel lives as the world turns around them. “Wild Bill” proves his mettle by hot wiring a car while working up to become a security head for the Black Panthers. Fred recites Malcolm X from memory to impress a girl (Dominique Fishback in a tender performance) before she becomes his life partner and eventually the mother of his child. But as close calls for both men occur, the film builds to the inevitable death of Hampton, a life ended far too soon for a man who only fought for the betterment of Black people.
Director Shaka King, co-writer of the film alongside Will Berson and Kenny & Keith Lucas, shows the life behind an often forgotten martyr of the rights movement. The film’s true magic comes with the performances of the two leading men, with Kaluuya and Stanfield both shining. Stanfield makes his traitor into a sympathetic figure, despite the consequences of his actions. Kaluuya, similarly, brings humanity to a figure that died young. Supporting performers are also spectacular, with Fishback continuing a stellar run of supporting roles. Two young men played by Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) and Algee Smith (Detroit) both prove themselves capable once again.
The flaws of Judas and the Black Messiah mostly fall into Shaka King’s lap, with the writer-director possibly biting off more than he could chew. Thankfully the movie doesn’t make the mistake of trying to explain the entire civil rights movement in a single movie (such as the aforementioned Detroit). But at a 128-minute runtime, the movie can be a bit long in the tooth. Some of the supporting cast, as well, gets a bit lost in the shuffle. An overqualified and pancaked-in-makeup Martin Sheen appears in a few scenes as J. Edgar Hoover, moments that add to the anger you’ll feel at the story but disrupt the movie.
I’ll end with two thoughts. First, you should see this movie, whether as a performance piece by two of the best actors working or as a history lesson. It succeeds at both. Second, while you watch the movie keep in mind one important fact:
- William O’Neal was forced to become an informant to the FBI at the age of 17 in the year 1966.
- Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep by the FBI at the age of 21.
People this young can and did change history. Hampton led a movement and O’Neal broke it up before wither would reach (2021’s) drinking age. Kaluuya and Stanfield both possess the gravity needed for the film, and while I’m sure there are younger actors as qualified, I wouldn’t seek anyone else for the roles. But the movie really does punch you in the gut with the cards in the credits showing that so much happened to people so young.
For as much as the world has changed, young Black people are still harassed and murdered by law enforcement officers to this day. Judas and the Black Messiah will show you how much work the world still needs to do.
Judas and the Black Messiah will be released in theaters and on HBO Max on February 12th