Judas and the Black Messiah
Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, was killed by Chicago police in 1969 while he was asleep in his bed. The based on a true story drama Judas and the Black Messiah (streaming on HBO Max until March 14th) is about how the FBI planted an informant close to Hampton, and how that informant helped orchestrate Hampton’s death. The protagonist isn’t Hampton, it is Bill O’Neal, a car thief blackmailed into assisting the FBI into silencing a threat. That is a shame because, as presented here, O’Neal is a blank slate. He clearly doesn’t care about the cause initially (which makes him a reliable source of information), but does being around the party change him? That question is never really answered, leaving a hole at the center of the story. What keeps Judas and the Black Messiah compelling are the scenes featuring Fred Hampton.
The screenplay introduces him as the face of a revolution, then takes the time to humanize him. He is portrayed as more than just the sum of his speeches. But what speeches! Daniel Kaluuya, in a performance that could very well see him winning a lot of awards, is absolutely electrifying as he passionately implores people to come together in the name of freedom. You can understand why the FBI, who the movie argues wanted to keep things status quo, was terrified of this man. Kaluuya is equally good in the quieter moments, where he flirts and falls in love. I wish his relationship with O’Neal had been expanded on; that would have added much-needed depth to the main plotline. I have no doubt LaKeith Stanfield could have done far more than he is asked to here. Even so, Stanfield does everything he can with his nonentity of a character.
When O’Neal is arrested after impersonating a federal agent in an attempt to steal a car, he is given a choice: go to prison for five to seven years or spend those years helping the FBI get into Fred Hampton’s inner circle instead. He obviously chooses the latter and finds a place as Hampton’s driver.
LaKeith Stanfield is an excellent actor. Over the last decade he has done great work in some fantastic projects (Atlanta, Sorry to Bother You, Uncut Gems, I could go on for a while). Here, he is not given the chance. Sometimes, O’Neal seems like a con man looking out for his own self-interest; at others, it feels like he has bought into Hampton’s message. The fact that his mindset is never fully explored is what holds Judas and the Black Messiah back from being another fantastic project.
Besides delving into how he truly feels about Chairman Fred, the movie also fails to use his relationship with his FBI handler, Roy Mitchell, to show how a white government agent was able to use his power and privilege to manipulate a black man into thinking he was being accepted. It occasionally leans in that direction. The concept is teased in the fancy dinners Mitchell buys him during their meetings or when he invites him into his home for a drink. The story even begins with a clip of O’Neal saying he trusted Mitchell. Yet it is kept only as an idea.
That leaves the depiction of Fred Hampton to carry the movie and boy does it. In addition to Kaluuya making every second he is on-screen interesting, the screenplay fleshes him out by giving time to his romance with Deborah Johnson (played devastatingly by Dominique Fishback). That allows Hampton to be more than a motivational symbol that scared J. Edgar Hoover (played as a caricature under terrible makeup by Martin Sheen). He is a real person and Kaluuya is brilliant bringing him to life (as great as he was in Get Out, Widows and Queen & Slim, this is his best performance). Director/cowriter Shaka King got The Black Messiah part right; it’s Judas that prevents this production from reaching the heights it could have. Still, when Kaluyaa is onscreen, that doesn’t matter.
3½ out of 5
LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton
Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson
Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell
Directed by Shaka King
Screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King