Half thriller, half lament, Shaka King’s new film Judas and the Black Messiah (February 12, HBO Max and in theaters) depicts a grim episode in recent American history. The film, written by King and Will Berson, is about the murder of Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party. He was, like too many civil rights leaders, done in by the United States government after they smeared him as a dangerous radical endangering the nation with violence and Communist rhetoric. As an extra dimension to the injustice, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had help from a plant inside the Panthers: a Black man named William O’Neal, who gave the crucial tip that led to Hampton’s assassination. Judas and the Black Messiah concerns that betrayal, playing as a sort of Donnie Brasco undercover drama that unfolds within the weighty context of sociopolitical fury and sorrow.
The film is a robust examination of time and place, damning in its critique of the FBI and the American institutions that abetted the bureau (and continue to). Judas is also awed, in a way, by Hampton and his work. Yet King does not bathe his film in piety; his is a hard-nosed, grave-faced movie, full of grit and moral complexity. It’s a sad film that marches mournfully toward Hampton’s inexorable death while gesturing toward the sorry fact that so little has changed in government and law enforcement’s treatment of Black social justice movements since the 1960s.
Fitting of its dynamic era, though, Judas and the Black Messiah also has moments of excitement and tension, bursts of gunfire or nervous scenes in which O’Neal is perilously close to being found out. Though we’re not rooting for him, there’s still a distinct rattling of nerves when O’Neal finds himself questioned by Hampton’s wary lieutenants, and a kind of guilty satisfaction in seeing how adeptly he wriggles his way out of suspicion.
That’s a credit to LaKeith Stanfield, the actor portraying him. It’s a tricky role, both despicable and pitiable. Stanfield keenly renders the conflict of O’Neal’s position—the further he gets in his mission, the more he sees the value in Hampton’s cause, and the more he comes to realize just how little the white brass at the FBI regards him as anything more than a pliable, disposable asset. He’s stuck between a perverse duty done under threat and a dawning political consciousness. One side eventually wins out, of course. But even though we know where the story is heading, Stanfield keep us in suspense. He viscerally captures the shiftiness of O’Neal, a guy so slippery that he passes directly through the center of something huge and significant with an alarming ease.
As Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya has a clearer righteousness to play. There is debate in the film about the means of change—a weighing of protest versus rebellion, physical action measured against speech and entreaty—and Hampton is not exactly depicted as an absolute moral authority, possessed of total certitude. But he gives several big and meaningful speeches, rousing sequences when the film is its most rumbling, its most declarative. Kaluuya delivers those sermons with fire, insistent but unshowy. In scenes with Hampton’s romantic partner Deborah Johnson (the terrific up-and-comer Dominique Fishback), he is tender, vulnerable, wholly human. That balance is gracefully struck, and I suspect Kaluuya will get the lion’s share of the awards attention for this movie. Stanfield, though, matches that intensity with something slyer, more complicated, more watchful.
What’s lacking in the film, then, is more scenes of the two of them together. O’Neal was pretty well ensconced in the Panthers at the time of Hampton’s death, a member of the group’s inner circle charged with protecting Hampton. Perhaps little is known about the actual quotidian patter of their relationship, but the film could have embellished some, certainly, to show us the bond so terribly violated by O’Neal. Judas and the Black Messiah is missing that deeper personal aspect, some sense of the emotional force yoking O’Neal and Hampton together, dragging them toward ruin.
The film is resonant regardless. Still, there’s such an opportunity presented here—to see these two sterling actors really working in harmony—that goes frustratingly unseized. As is, Judas and the Black Messiah is richer and more engaging than a standard biopic, but is not quite the Shakespearean tragedy of double allegiances and backstabbing that it could have been.
King—a rising television director of hip fare like Shrill and High Maintenance, here making his second feature film—has a steady command of the project, but he curiously restrains himself just when the movie might swell or twist into something more daring, more artful, more palpably felt. For all the danger and scramble of its subject, Judas and the Black Messiah can be awfully safe. Its dialogue is sharp; the film’s cold, washed-out palette nicely evokes a winter of discontent. Yet the talent assembled is surely capable of more than what’s offered. Had this wayward Judas and his doomed Messiah really seemed locked in a clench of love and reliance and mortal struggle with one another, the film could have been truly earth-shaking.
As is, it’s a momentous story told well enough. Which is better than how the powers that be would probably like it, which is not told at all.
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