The religious overtones of JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH come towards the end of this searing examination of racial politics during the 1960s. And when they arrive, in a sequence that is most assuredly a shout-out to the Last Supper, director/co-writer Shaka King has earned the right, and then some, to invoke the metaphor.
The Messiah of the title is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kuluuya), the charismatic chairman of Illinois’ Black Panther Party. A revolutionary to the marrow of his bones, he was also an idealist who didn’t ignore the reality of white oppression but saw beyond the unjust present to a Rainbow Coalition that pitted a united working class against the ruling class. He also had the talent to make it happen. Naturally, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen palpably relishing the chance to be the incarnation of all that is evil in the ruling class) could not let this stand. Determined to bring Hampton down, Hoover initiates a program of surveillance and infiltration of the Panthers, in general, and Hampton in particular. Hence FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) recruits Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a scam artist whose last ploy went bad. After first establishing O’Neal’s complete indifference to the Civil Rights movement, Mitchell offers him a deal to avoid prison. O’Neal jumps at the chance, and the cash rewards that come with it, agreeing to become an informant by joining the Panthers. Exceeding expectations, he soon rises in the ranks while also becoming one of Hampton’s most trusted comrades.
The film avoids the obvious at every turn, most notably in the relationship between O’Neal and Mitchell, the former a man who believes in nothing but money, and the latter a believer in not just the predictable law-and-order approach to cultural stability that an FBI agent would be expected to have, but also in the goals of the Civil Rights movement as an integral part of it. It is the gradual doubts that each man comes to have about their world views that is the heart of this film. For O’Neal, it is becoming woke, to use the current parlance, and falling under the spell of Hampton’s inclusiveness that reaches out even to white racists by explaining with eloquence and patience that the real enemy is capitalism. For Mitchell, it is a damning in-person conversation with Hoover. The brilliance of the script, the direction, and the performances, is what each man chooses to do once their paradigms have been turned upside down. Weakness is shown for what it is, just that, with both men, inwardly tortured but externally tough, at the mercy of a power that they don’t have the strength to fight, the pressure flooding down from above overwhelming them. When they realize that they are pawns, it is a tragedy of epic proportions.
Which serves to emphasize why Fred Hampton was so remarkable for standing up the forces he was challenging and accepting the fallout. Kuluuya has the charisma and the passion, but also the tenderness in his relationship with acolyte and lover Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), honoring her philosophical criticisms as well as courting her in suitably revolutionary fashion. He does more than deliver Hampton’s rhetoric, he makes you see his vision for the coalition he is building that gives him the drive to continue against impossible odds, and he makes you believe it can happen.
This is a film that reveals much by focusing on details. The drops of blood on the floor by O’Neal’s worn shoes as the waits to be interrogated by Mitchell after his arrest. The way Hampton’s face softens with respect, not condescension, when Johnson points out his PR mistakes. The way the camera focuses on Johnson’s face, not on what is happening in the room behind her, during an FBI raid. The way it also focuses on Plemons’ face when he realizes the character of the man he works for, and on Stanfield’s when the full power of the FBI is casually revealed to him by a trinket that is a gut-punch no matter what your politics are.
A clip of the real Bill O’Neal ends JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, with an excerpt from the only interview he ever gave. The specifics of what he did at this point tempered by what we have seen before speaks, by design, to the larger issues of racism that are still at work today. What is truly, and suitably, revolutionary here, though, is the way it makes clear the class struggle as just as insidious a social problem, and all the moreso for not being addressed in a country embracing the myth of a classless society.