In 1969 the charismatic Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was shot in his bed during a state-sanctioned predawn raid conducted by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. Director Shaka King vividly details how and why he met his premature end.
The story begins when career criminal William O’Neal’s (Lakeith Stanfield) plan to impersonate an FBI agent in order to brazenly steal a car goes awry. He winds up beaten, in the hands of Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), an actual agent who offers him a deal. Either do one-and-a-half years for stealing the car and another five for impersonating an officer or go undercover and infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. He chooses freedom in exchange for supplying details on the comings-and goings of deputy chairman Hampton and his girlfriend, revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Rising to the trusted position of security captain O’Neal is torn between loyalty to Hampton’s revolutionary ideas and self-interest, i.e., the deal he made to stay out of prison. “Imagine what they would do if they found out their security captain was a rat,” says Mitchell.
As the title suggests “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a story of epic betrayal. King carefully fits the puzzle pieces together to create a complex picture of its characters.
Stanfield, who has been handing in strong performances in films like “Selma,” “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You” hits a career high here. His take on O’Neal portrays the conflict of a man who took a dangerous and deadly road to salvation, only to discover he was in way over his head. There’s a complexity to Stanfield’s work as he breathes life into his conflicted character. In real life, years after the events portrayed in the film, O’Neal said of his legacy, “I think I’ll let history speak for me.” History may judge him, call him a Judas, but Stanfield doesn’t. Instead, he helps us understand O’Neal’s bad decisions.
Kaluuya unfolds Hampton as much more than a title. History records him as the assassinated Chairman of the Black Panthers, but “Judas and the Black Messiah” remembers him as a captivating speaker who rallied people for his cause as he established free breakfast programs and negotiated a détente between rival gangs. Kaluuya’s work jumps off the screen, with show stopping speeches and emotional scenes he brings Hampton off the pages of the history books with a well-rounded, fiery performance.
The vivid performances, including Fishback who brings depth to a supporting character, reel you in. King takes the time to let us get to know Hampton and O’Neal, which makes the deadly dance they engage in, leading up to the violent climax, all the more emotionally shocking.
Set more than fifty years ago “Judas and the Black Messiah” feels timely. Many of the issues at play in the story are still hot button topics today. The work Hampton began continues because, as he once said, “you can kill the revolutionary but not the revolution.”