The past year in film has shined a light on the topics we weren’t told in history class.
Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe Anthology” covered injustice in law enforcement and the courts. “MLK/FBI” detailed the FBI’s unlawful investigation into Martin Luther King Jr.
While each is notable, none seethes with such rage and violence while pleading for compassion quite like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the first mainstream biopic covering Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a 21-year-old Black Panthers leader and revolutionary on the verge of uniting black gangs across Chicago.
In the wake of the assassinations of King Jr. and Malcolm X, Hampton’s ability to bring together violent oppositions is seen as dangerous to the U.S. government by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).
When William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a serial car thief, is caught impersonating an officer to steal a car, he’s given an ultimatum by FBI handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons): Infiltrate the Black Panthers and supply the government with information about Hampton or face prison time.
Attending Hampton’s morning education classes, O’Neal sees the good of Hampton: He feeds children, offers education for Black people and hope for a better future. Placed in Hampton’s inner circle, O’Neal finds it increasingly more difficult to snitch on Hampton. Still, a prison sentence and money incentives are enough to sweeten the pot.
The first studio film by director/co-writer Shaka King, “Judas” is a statement that brims with anger and confidence, similar to Ava DuVernay’s major studio debut “Selma” mixed with the suspense of Mike Newell’s “Donnie Brasco.”
Stanfield, so sharp in comic roles like the show “Atlanta” and “Sorry to Bother You,” brings weight to the internal struggle of the real-life O’Neal. Playing an unrepentant sell-out to the government, Stanfield projects a mixture of guilt and helplessness to his character, fearful of what will happen to him if the FBI isn’t satisfied with his intel.
While the story belongs to O’Neal, Kaluuya steals the show with his fiery, loving performance of Hampton. Where his star-making roles in movies like “Get Out” and “Widows” had him performing with quiet rage, he explodes with a balance of fiery passion and down-to-earth care. When he gives his “I am a revolutionary” speech, it hits hard. When he unites others while being faced with violence, he couldn’t feel more human.
In telling O’Neal’s story, King doesn’t flinch or sugarcoat the message. In his eyes, the FBI and police broke laws, bombed buildings and assassinated a 21-year-old man because they were uncomfortable with a message. In return, Hampton’s group fired back literally and metaphorically. In the middle was O’Neal, who denied having blood on his hands until the day he died.
The movie is sometimes shaky with its scope. It starts out like a fake documentary, meant to be the real-life PBS crew who O’Neal granted a rare interview, before quickly abandoning it. In a similar manner, a nightmare sequence for O’Neal jars the audience in the wrong way.
While you may have heard the phrase “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution,” its origins wasn’t taught in any history class. This serves as a complicated, enraging introduction to Hampton, Hoover’s shameful COINTELPRO program and its use of people like O’Neal. Let’s hope it’s the start of a conversation where we can reckon with America’s dark past.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” will be available in theaters like the Screenland Armour in Kansas City, Missouri, and to stream on HBO Max.