Released Feb. 12, "Judas and the Black Messiah" tells the story of the FBI’s assassination of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton in 1969. The film covers the last year of Hampton’s life, as his Black Panther party continues to grow in power and influence — as well as in resistance from the corrupt FBI and Chicago Police Department.
Hampton is played by Daniel Kaluuya, whose performance is not just moving, but almost uncanny when compared to the clips of Hampton that are shown after the movie's final scenes. Harnessing Hampton’s deep and southern voice, as well as his poignant vocabulary, Kaluuya was able to emulate Hampton’s speeches in a very powerful way without them feeling over-the-top.
Hampton was known publicly for his charisma, but Kaluuya added character to Hampton by posturing his more laid back nature when not in front of an audience. This mix of charisma, popularity and a willingness to die for the cause led the FBI to label him a possible “Black Messiah.”
It is clear early in the movie that the FBI’s ultimate goal with Hampton is to bring his demise. Played by a constantly scowling Martin Sheen, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover directly informs his FBI agents of this, saying, “Prison made Huey Newton a celebrity. It made Eldridge Cleaver a best-selling author. Prison is a temporary solution.”
To accomplish this, the FBI enlisted the help of 21-year-old petty car thief William O’Neal who is given an ultimatum: help infiltrate the Black Panthers while receiving envelopes of cash and fancy dinners, or serve six years in prison for grand theft auto. O’Neal, played masterfully by LaKeith Stanfield, accepts the FBI’s offer and slowly works his way up the Panthers organization.
Stanfield’s ability to represent O’Neal’s moral confusion at the situation he is thrust into is one of the highlights of the movie. While O’Neal is hesitant at first, only accepting to avoid time in prison, he soon becomes enthralled in the double life he is living as an FBI informant. He eventually even brings information the FBI hadn’t asked about in an attempt to raise his status and rewards within the FBI.
It’s only once he is aware that the FBI’s plan is to eventually kill Hampton that O’Neal begins to push back at the situation he finds himself in. His conscience on the subject seems ever-changing and at times, the audience can’t tell whether his allegiance lies with the Panthers or the FBI. Stanfield also does a great job of showing how little control O’Neal feels over his situation and in some ways makes a very unsympathetic character very sympathetic. O’Neals ultimate betrayal in leading the FBI to a sleeping Hampton is what earns him the title name of “Judas,” but that doesn’t quite describe his real role in the movie.
A lot of the movie centers on the relationship between O’Neal and his FBI handler named Roy Mitchell. The movie at times seems to be through O’Neal’s lens and we continue to learn about his experiences with the Panthers through these conversations. While these conversations are important to understanding the FBI coercion used to eventually kill Hampton, they become both repetitive and drawn out. Far too much time is spent listening to the movie rehashing the same conversation over and over, to the point it breaks the momentum of the movie whenever O’Neal and Mitchell sit down together.
The dialogue also felt a bit over-the-top at times, including FBI Director Hoover questioning Agent Mitchell on the possibility of his 8-month-old daughter bringing home a black man. While understanding the racist tendencies of the FBI is very crucial to the story, the level to which it was included into the dialogue felt exacerbated. Similarly the dialogue between the Panthers felt unnatural at times, with instances of them talking about the history of black revolution feeling more like a history lesson for the audience than a realistic conversation.
The romance between Hampton and Deborah Johnson, a member of the Black Panthers, was also a highlight of the movie. The relationship was never overly romantic, but very emotional at times, such as when Johnson recites Hampton her poem on knowing what their respective fates will be. Their relationship only becomes more heart straining as we know how it will eventually end for Hampton.
While much of the movie was shot to show how corrupt the police were, there are scenes throughout that focus on other elements, like love or the level of hate between the Black Panther party and the police.
While some of the extended dialogue does break the momentum of the movie at times, it remains gripping and feels much more like a crime thriller than a political drama. It is a long movie at over two hours but definitely worth your time thanks to a pair of incredible performances from the title role characters.