Judas and the Black Messiah is a spellbinding true story of betrayal and America’s turbulent racial reckoning during the 1960s. The FBI, under the authoritarian rule of J. Edgar Hoover, launched an illegal clandestine program – COINTELPRO, to infiltrate and subvert political organizations deemed a threat to national security. William O’ Neal was recruited to spy and befriend Fred Hampton, the charismatic Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Judas and the Black Messiah weaves a riveting narrative of the people, time period, and historical consequences of the operation. It is a complex, multilayered account of a movement that struck at core inequities and beliefs in society. 2021 has its first great film.
In 1968 Chicago, Bill O’ Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is a thief who steals cars using a fake FBI badge. He’s caught after a particularly brazen attempt, but receives an unusual visitor at the police precinct. FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) is impressed by Bill’s audacity. He offers him a deal to avoid significant jail time. Become an FBI informant, join the local Black Panther chapter, and insinuate himself into the life of its leader, the young Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
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As Bill O’ Neal rises in the Black Panthers, he and Agent Mitchell are surprised by Fred Hampton’s personality. He was a superb orator, but shy and reserved off center stage. Hampton was an organized idealogue who wanted concrete steps forward. Even more stunning was Hampton’s ability to draw other races to his cause. He successfully recruited Whites, Puerto Ricans, and Chicago’s rival drug gangs. Hampton deviated from racial separation theories and focused on poverty as an underlying unifying factor.
J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), a virulent racist, viewed the Black Panthers as an existential threat to America. They were radical communists that believed in arming “negroes”, had their own schools, medical facilities, food programs; and actively dissented against accepted societal norms. Hoover wanted the Black Panthers rooted out and destroyed by any means necessary. He feared the rise of a “Black Messiah”, someone who could not only incite Blacks to revolution, but also gain followers from sympathetic Whites. Fred Hampton was the literal embodiment of his greatest fears.
Judas and the Black Messiah pulls no punches. The FBI methods used, ugly violence, and racial animosity is presented with an unvarnished view. But to his credit, director/co-writer Shaka King, incredible in his feature debut, does not let the film devolve into anger and retribution. He humanizes every aspect of this story. This is particularly evident when Roy Mitchell is challenged by his colleagues after a horrific turn of events. He saw the Black Panthers and Klu Klux Klan as different sides of the same coin. But his interpretation of law enforcement acting impartially for equal good did not adhere to the agency’s goals. Hoover crushed any dissension.
Daniel Kaluuya, who had shown great range in his previous starring roles, must now be viewed among Hollywood’s elite actors. Fred Hampton is portrayed with a gentle, disciplined gravitas that erupts when the fire of the moment calls. His relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) adds tremendous depth to the character’s inner motivations. Hampton was barely an adult, just twenty-one at the time; navigating the burdens of leadership, love, and dogged oppression. Kudos as well to Lakeith Stanfield. William O’ Neal understood the results of his treachery. Stanfield is wracked with guilt throughout, but always clear in his intentions. O’ Neal chose money and self preservation in each pivotal moment. The lead performances in this film are excellent.
Judas and the Black Messiah enthralls from the opening frame. Some scenes are difficult to watch. The film is stark and uncompromising, but also brilliantly theatrical. It is compelling to see; regardless of different perspectives on racial issues, the FBI, and the Black Panthers. Judas and the Black Messiah offers a vivid background to the continuing divisions still affecting the country today. Fred Hampton’s life is truly an American story. Judas and the Black Messiah is a production of Bron Creative, MACRO, and Participant Media. It will be released by Warner Bros. in theaters and HBO Max on February 12th.
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