Dog’s Movie House: “Judas And The Black Messiah” Crackling Piece Of Docudrama!
“Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the tale of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) a rising leader in the Black Panther movement in Chicago during the 1960s. Hampton is a brilliant speaker and organizer who is interested in elevating the black community from what he sees as a white-run capitalist regime. But he goes beyond just his race: Hampton is able to unite the mostly white Young Patriots Organization and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang concerned with human rights, into a multi-cultural Rainbow Coalition.
This, along with his fiery rhetoric, garners him the attention of the FBI. Head Fed himself J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen in a small, but pivotal role) wants Hampton muzzled. Enter FBI agent Roy Mitchell (an excellent Jesse Plemons) who recruits career thief Bill O’Neal (Stanfield) to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and get close to Hampton. O’Neal has made a career out of being someone else (he’s busted for impersonating, of all things, and FBI agent in order to steal cars) and Mitchell thinks O’Neal’s chameleon-like personality is perfect for the job.
What follows is almost like a true-life version of “The Departed” with O’Neal getting close to Hampton while working his way out of compromising situations where Hampton’s associates don’t trust the new guy. A scene where O’Neal is suspected of being a fed and nearly killed until he talks his way out of it (ironically enough, by telling the truth about his past when he was merely impersonating an FBI agent) is one of the more effective scenes in the film.
Stanfield is terrific as a man caught in the middle of his job (he can’t quit, or Mitchell will send him to jail) but he finds himself being slowly converted to Hampton’s way of thinking. It makes the eventual betrayal (not a spoiler alert, folks: this is history we’re talking about here) all the more painful to take. The last several minutes of the film plays out like a horror movie you can’t unsee, dramatized from the factual accounts of what happened to Fred Hampton. Essentially the government, including Hoover’s FBI, assassinated Hampton just days before he was about to go back to prison. It’s fascinating (and a bit horrifying) to see just how afraid the government was of a twenty-one year old man.
The interesting thing about “Judas and the Black Messiah” it that despite the obvious racial issues there is a universal sense of understanding in the drama that unfolds. The ideas of friendship, solidarity, and betrayal are, in and of themselves universal themes. Shaka King does a fantastic job of humanizing everyone, even Roy Mitchell. It’s the FBI agents true (albeit misinformed) belief that the Black Panthers are the flip side of the KKK, and it’s just not the dogmatic belief of the FBI. It comes from a personal place as he was one of the agents investigating murders of young black men by the Klan in Mississippi. It doesn’t mean that he’s right, but it does round Mitchell out as a character rather than portraying him as the standard white cardboard goon. It helps that Plemmons is terrific in the role.
Stanfield does remarkable work with a challenging character here. O’Brien often playacts so it’s difficult to get a true sense of the man, but in the rare instances when he shows genuine emotion, Stanfield nails it. It’s Kaluuya who really shines here, giving a powerhouse performance that far outdistances the “angry black revolutionary” trope that could have occurred very easily given the subject matter. Hampton is charismatic, intelligent, and a terrific organizer, but he is human. He says things and makes mistakes that come back to bite him in the ass, but through it all the script and Kaluuya’s performance let the audience see the fundamentally decent human being at the core of the man. Special mention must be made to the performance of Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s love and mother of his child. Her chemistry with Kaluuya is electric and there is a real sense of love in their portrayed relationship that, like other elements in the film, make the finale all the more heartbreaking.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is not any easy watch, but it is a fascinating, impeccably made film with powerhouse performances, a crackling script, and some of the most sure handed direction by a first timer I’ve seen in a long time. Shaka King has crafted a debut for the ages and he and his crew should be proud of their work. A wonderful achievement! 4 1/2 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer! So Sayeth The Kendog!