Films that cover historical snapshots have a tendency to feel documentarian. Filmmakers try to position the real-life occurrences as factual recreations without any sense of how it reflects our history today. Director Shaka King avoided every possible pratfall with Judas and the Black Messiah, a constantly entertaining and frustrating look at the life of Fred Hampton and the man who infiltrated the Black Panthers, William O’Neal.
Daniel Kaluuya portrays Hampton – the young, charismatic, loquacious chairman of the Black Panthers’ Illinois chapter. Hampton has big ideas in order to advance black people around him and he is not about to stand idly by and wait for the right opportunity. He is out in the world at every opportunity and is pushing big ideas. O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is out there too; posing as an FBI agent in order to steal cars. When O’Neal is arrested and threatened with prison, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jessie Plemons) lets him go, as long as he goes undercover with Hampton and the Panthers.
O’Neal is intelligent and resourceful. He knows what needs to be done in order to get in Hampton’s good graces. O’Neal quickly gains the Panthers trust and gives him the first-hand account to how Hampton operates. All the while, O’Neal reports to Mitchell on the Panthers’ ins-and-outs.
Hampton isn’t just dealing with political causes. He meets Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) and forms a romantic connection. Outside of the Panthers, Johnson is the only thing Hampton can focus on. He is singularly focused and knows what that focus will inevitably lead to. Johnson is there to support Hampton, but maintains an optimism for the future that Hampton doesn’t believe he will be a part of.
Hampton brings together Puerto Rican and poor white gangs in the “Rainbow Coalition” in order to advance their station and protest the police. The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in reptilian make-up) wants Hampton off the streets. O’Neal has to navigate the political ramifications of being in the Panthers and reporting back to Mitchell.
The highlight of the film comes from the scene in the trailer. Hampton is speaking in front of a diverse contengent of onlookers and he speaks with unbridled passion about what needs to happen and how it needs to be achieved. He again speaks on his inexorable death with Johnson in the crowd. She loves Hampton and supports everything he is saying, but tears stream as she knows the pain she will eventually feel. Meanwhile, O’Neal is on the verge of becoming a true believer as he stands guard by the stage. He screams in unison with the rest of the crowd, but freezes when he sees Mitchell smiling along in the congregation.
The four main characters of the film all collide, but don’t directly interact. Mitchell is there for control, Hampton is there for passion, Johnson is there for love, O’Neal is there for survival. It is dynamite filmmaking.
Stanfield has the trickiest role and does do too much with it. O’Neal sinks into the background when necessary and does enough to gain the trust of Hampton, without the FBI questioning his loyalty. He experiences turmoil about his actions, but continues to follow through. Stanfield’s inherent likeability works in his benefit, despite actively repressing it in his role.
Kaluuya is getting a bulk of the praise and for good reason. While he is all fire and bluster on a stage in front of a microphone, Hampton lives his politics in all parts of his life and knows when to dial it up and dial it back. Kaluuya is also a spectacular reactor to other performances. When Fishback speaks about her fears, he doesn’t overpower her, but he matches her gentleness. When Stanfield rages, he attempts to temper. It is not a performance of yelling and speechifying., it is a performance of measurement and calculation.
Fishback provides a warmth the film needs in the midst of the despair and heavy ideas. The role of the long-suffering wife/girlfriend is a classic trope, but Johnson never tries to dissuade Hampton or make him stop. She sees the passion and isn’t about to stop what she knows he can’t stop. Meanwhile, Plemons plays a trick of likability through most of the film. The role of Mitchell could come across as one-note, but Plemons injects humor and depth into a character that grows into evil slowly and with purpose.
The rest of the ensemble is also great, with Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Algee Smith, Jermaine Fowler and Dominique Thorne leading the way as Hampton’s Panther entourage. I especially loved a scene between Kaluuya and Alysia Joy Powell, who portrays the mother of a slain Panther. Powell plays hurt and saddened, but accepts the reality of the situation without exploding and remembers times of joy instead of the legacy her dead son. Hopefully, this will lead to bigger roles for her in the future.
Shaka King does not feel like an inexperienced director. The confidence and vision in which he directs displays his immense talent. It also helps that he brought along experts in their own craft, like cinematographer Sean Bobbit, art director Jeremy Woolsey and editor Kristan Sprague. The craft on the film is undeniable.
While the film ends on a note of helplessness, but the frustration stems from the circumstances, not the filmmaking. You ask yourself how our country could have let this happen. I have a feeling this is exactly what King was going for.