Forces of revolution and oppression collide and entangle in Shaka King's blistering "Judas and the Black Messiah," a potent and vividly acted drama about the FBI's subversion and assassination of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
King's film, which he wrote with Will Berson, plunges into the dark chapter in American history when J. Edgar Hoover's FBI used surveillance, infiltration and worse to check the ascent of Black movements both peaceful (as in the case of Martin Luther King Jr., chronicled recently in Sam Pollard's "MLK/FBI" documentary) and more militant.
Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, was just 21 when he was shot and killed in an FBI raid in 1969. The raid was carried out, in part, due to information from Hampton's own security chief, William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief turned informant four years earlier by the FBI's Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). In the movie's first scenes, O'Neal storms into a bar in a trench coat and fedora, flashing a fake badge — a ruse that nearly scores him a car. When he's caught, the police ask him why not use a knife or a gun.
"A badge is scarier than a gun," he answers.
Faced with a lengthy prison term or going undercover with the Black Panthers, O'Neal opts to work for Mitchell. This brings us into the heady orbit of Hampton. As played by Kaluuya, he is a forceful, magnetic orator who, through toil and charisma, is building a "rainbow coalition" of the oppressed in Chicago. So commanding is Kaluuya that "Judas and the Black Messiah" loses some of its punch when he's not around. (For a spell, Hampton is jailed.)
It's not that the rest of the cast isn't superlative; especially good as Hampton's partner, Deborah Johnson, is Dominique Fishback — a memorable presence on "The Deuce," and, I suspect, a future star. But "Judas and the Black Messiah" is best when Kaluuya's Hampton is in full, fiery voice and King's film is directly channeling the Black power movement of the era.
If Kaluuya gives "Judas and the Black Messiah" its strength, Stanfield supplies its unease. King doesn't dwell on O'Neal's psychological stress as an informant the way that Sidney Lumet's police corruption opus "Prince and the City" does. King relies on juxtapositions of O'Neal's time among the Panthers and sit-downs with Mitchell. The FBI agent believes he's on the side of justice. Comparing the Black Panthers to white supremacists, he says: "You can't cheat your way to equality and you certainly can't shoot your way to it."
But Mitchell is an operative in Hoover's FBI. When Hoover (Martin Sheen) makes an appearance, "Judas and the Black Messiah" hints at a wider war of oppression — a war, Hoover says, over "our way of life." This makes King's film a clear counterpoint to Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman," which showed the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) aiding, not sabotaging, Black radicals.
Caught in between the Panthers and the feds is O'Neal. For Stanfield, the gifted actor of "Sorry to Bother You" and "Knives Out," it's a compelling tightrope of a slippery performance, poised between empathy and judgment for the pitiable O'Neal. As damning as the film's title is, Stanfield's O'Neal is never quite aware of the seriousness of the game he's playing until its gruesome and appalling end.
It's a balance reflective of King's film overall. "Judas and the Black Messiah," resurrecting a painful saga of police racial injustice, is a self-evidently timely film without stating its contemporary resonance literally. If anything, you want it draw Stanfield and Kaluuya together more often than it does. Instead, the movie devolves and grows more sorrowful as Hampton's movement is stymied, and we're left feeling the loss of a history that might have been.
"Judas and the Black Messiah," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence and pervasive language. Running time: 126 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.