A film review by Craig J. Koban June 10, 2021

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH jjj

2021, R, 126 mins.

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton  /  LaKeith Stanfield as William O'Neal  /  Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell  /  Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson  /  Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer  /  Algee Smith as Jake Winters  /  Graham Lutes as Alex  /  Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover  /  Lil Rel Howery as Wayne

Directed by Shaka King  /  Written by Will Berson and Shaka King

Is there a better actor working today at evoking teeth and fist clenched paranoia than LaKeith Stanfield?  

Just look at his fever pitched performances in movies like GET OUT or SORRY TO BOTHER YOU and you'll kind of get the idea, or perhaps just seek out JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, the biographical historical drama that has him playing titular backstabber William O' Neal, who in 1960s Chicago worked as an undercover informant for the FBI within that city's chapter of the Black Panthers, led by its charismatic leader Fred Hampton (played by Stanfield's GET OUT co-star in Daniel Kaluuya).  JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH tells the story of both men and their collision course in history and at a very crucial period for the American Civil Right's Movement, during which time O'Neal befriended and ultimately betrayed Hampton to the feds, paying a heavy emotional price as a result.  Directed with considerable flair and passion by rookie filmmaker Shaka King, the film accurately evokes a time when corrupt political leaders were left largely unchecked and revolutionary leaders on the other side were unfortunately caught in their crosshairs. 

If anything, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is about the horrifying lengths that the FBI would go to in order to suppress black leaders and ensure that their revolutionary rhetoric didn't make it to the masses.  The film's story is bookended by a recreation of a 1989 interview that O'Neal gave for the documentary EYES ON THE PRIZE 2, during which time he came out of protective custody hiding to explain and rationalize his motives for turning clandestine snitch on the legendary Black Panther icon.  We then swiftly flashback over 20 years and see O'Neal before his FBI work and on the streets doing all sorts of petty crime.  

In a sly opening sequence, we see the fairly quick witted crook impersonate - ironically enough - an FBI agent to fake arrest some bar patrons and later steal one of their vehicles, but the robbery goes south real fast and he's quickly busted by the feds that he's trying to impersonate.  In the interrogation room he has a fateful meeting with an up and coming agent named Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who sees potential in O,Neal for using his obvious skills at deception to infiltrate the highest levels of the Blank Panther party and take down the Chicago Chapter leader from the inside out.  Obviously, O'Neal is terrified by the whole ordeal of the arrest and probable jail time for his multiple crimes, so he begrudgingly agrees to Mitchel's offer, and the pair then partake in an elaborate plan to get O'Neal in and in tight with Hampton's gang, and - in the process - help the FBI silence him once and for all. 

The overall screenplay here by Will Berson and King has three tiers, the first of which is O'Neal's stressful orientation into the BPP organization itself (let's just say that there vetting process is nerve wrackingly tough on new recruits) and how that coincides with his budding relationship with Hampton and his key underlines.  The second tier involves tracing the meteoric rise of Hampton himself up to the upper echelon of the party itself, who became not only the chairman of the BPP of Chicago, but also the deputy chairman of the National BPP at an incredibly young age, and it was his radical socialist stances that won him over with those under him.  Thirdly, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH chronicles the key and oftentimes tenuous team-up between the perpetually on edge O'Neal and his superior/handler in Mitchell, with the latter answering directly to FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, under pounds of distracting makeup appliances), who wanted to make it his mission in life to utterly decimate the BPP and Hampton.  Initially, O'Neal is quite adept in his crucial undercover role, and seems dutifully motivated by the praise and pay that the agency gives him for his successes.  However, as he spends more time with Hampton and his entourage (and sees the type of positive seismic changes that they're attempting to bring to black communities everywhere) alongside realizing the FBI's true end game it makes him start to severely doubt the worthiness of his cause altogether.  And the duplicitous life he leads starts to get the better of him, which only makes him more dispirited and edgy around everyone on both sides. 

 

 

As mentioned, Stanfield's pitch perfect casting as O'Neal is instrumental here, and he utterly captures his role's nightmarish struggles with workplace duality, not to mention his greater crisis of conscience in terms of plaguing himself with questions as to whether he's actual in a just and worthy cause.  He's superbly matched by the immense presence of Kaluuya as Hampton, who's sort of the polar opposite of the powder keg of nervous ticks that is O'Neal.  There's a searing intensity and confidence on Kaluuya's performance here, and he has a field day imbuing in Hampton a fiery and unwavering drive to launch a "rainbow coalition" of multiple races to take down any person or organization that wants to subjugate his people.  It's a real fascinating dichotomy of character beats and arcs on display in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH: On one hand, we get to witness O'Neal's baptism by fire inclusion into the BPP while trying to stave off having his real intentions uncovered (that, and he's delusion about jail time if he fails the FBI on his mission).  On the other hand, we get to see the young leader in Hampton that has a dream of a better place for his kind and will fight via any means necessary to get it, and he does so without fear or hesitation.  JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is on fertile ground largely because of Stanfield's and Kaluuya's combined presence here. 

O'Neal's ties with Mitchell are equally intriguing, and the film understands that the power play dynamic between the handler and his covert op is also rife with tension (Plemons is also stellar here playing a very tricky role).  Along with that, King does an exemplary job of immersing audiences in this film's significant historical time and place: It was a period of empowered community action by the BPP, but it was severely curtailed by not only the rampant racism of the era, but also by the repellent abuses of force and power that the FBI used to horrifying levels.  All of this culminated with Hampton's tragic killing by the Chicago PD (working in conjunction with the FBI, Mitchell, and the Intel provided by O'Neal) in 1969, which many have labeled with reasonable levels of accuracy as an political assassination.  Killed less than two years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Hampton's fate was sealed largely because O'Neal gave law enforcement a detailed layout of the leader's pad (it's here where the biblical correlations of the film's title becomes more prominent when it comes to O'Neal's betrayal).  Forever tormented by the far reaching severity of his actions, O'Neal was never the same and escaped into the Witness Relocation Program soon afterwards.  He made a return to public life in the aforementioned documentary interview, after which time he died very shortly after its broadcast.  His death was ruled a suicide. 

An unnerving and undulating sense of unease and pure dread cascades over much of JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH.  Even though we know the historical record of what transpired between all of these parties, King nevertheless maximizes a strong sense of nail biting suspense throughout (even the blood soaked climax involving Hampton's killing is chilling to the max despite its preordained outcome).  King's technique here is pretty unimpeachable, not to mention that the performers assembled here are of an unqualified grade-A quality and all delivery superlative work.  Where JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH sort of failed me, though, is in its unevenness at times.  The pacing early on is sluggish and the film takes a long time to generate some sizable momentum (this has the negative side effect of making this somewhat long film feel even longer).  Also, for as much electrifyingly fidgety energy that Stanfield brings to his role, it's ultimately a case of an actor performing miracles with a largely underwritten role.  O'Neal comes across a bit more like an unexplained cipher in the film versus a fully fleshed out Judas figure.  We grow to understand the tortuous extremes that he psychologically went through during his undercover work (and how his actions destroyed a man and a cause) as well as understanding why a black man of his time would take the FBI's juicy offer versus spending time in prison.  But, what else was this guy all about?  What made him truly tick?  Who was he outside of his mole life?  The film never makes it explicitly clear, leading to O'Neal's character seeming a bit more hollow than it should be.  I also didn't like the definitive lack of embellishment of the power brokers at the highest level of the FBI; Hoover in particular (as played by Sheen) should have been a far more compelling figure of authoritative interest here, but he's never given much nuance in the film.  He's kind of a one note villain, and not much more. 

But, yes, this film isn't really about political might on the government side that wanted to crush Hampton and the BPP; it's really about Hampton and O'Neal (if I have one nitpicky gripe with the actors' casting it's that they're both far older looking than the youthful historical figures they play; Hampton was just barely in his twenties when killed).  Still, there's a solid claim to be had in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH that King is attempting to provide a more fully realized portrait of the BPP as a whole than probably what we've received on screen before, but in the process perhaps sugarcoats some of the more extreme and violent tendencies of this party.  Hampton and his fellow members were not saints by any means, and JUDAS THE BLACK MESSIAH digs deeper into BPP history and hierarchy than any previous film that I've seen, but I can also see how some audience members may sense an overly softening approach by King and crew.  This is a film of many nagging creative contradictions and, for me at least, tries to attain greatness throughout, but falls short in the end.  But as a sobering account of a dark time in the state of American Civil Rights and the tragic outcome of one of its most passionate leaders, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is an undeniably intoxicating work that rings with timeliness.  A sense of justifiable moral outrage punctuates this film when it comes to what happened to Hampton as a result of those in power that were paradoxically sworn to protect and serve Americans and their best interests.  

In many haunting ways, things haven't changed that much. 

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