Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, both from 2017’s blockbuster horror Get Out, team up again to bring us the true chronicles of the ultimate betrayal in Judas and the Black Messiah. The story begins in Chicago 1968 where Bill O’Neal (Stanfield) gets arrested for impersonating an FBI agent and stealing a car. When real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) asks O’Neal why he didn’t simply bother using a gun, O’Neal replies, “A badge is scarier than a gun.” Mitchell then offers O’Neal a deal: they won’t send him to jail for 6 ½ years, but in exchange they want him to join the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and inform the bureau about its chairman, the charismatic and thoughtful Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), who FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) believes is a serious threat to the status quo. We then see how Hampton works to amass power through the Panthers while O’Neal looks to sell his insider information to the feds.
While history is usually told through individual stories (e.g. The Great Man of History historiography), Judas and the Black Messiah’s director, Shaka King (pictured above), finds the space between the individual and the larger societal conflicts and poses the question of how we behave in larger power structures. When Hampton is using the Panthers to feed hungry children or provide free medical care, he’s not doing it simply because he’s a nice guy. He’s doing it because it cements the power of the Panthers in the community. When he reaches out to local gangs or poor whites to create a rainbow coalition, he’s building an army because he knows there is strength in numbers. Hoover and the bureau represent white supremacy, and they were right to perceive the Panthers as a threat to that supremacy because Hampton knew what he was doing.
One of the most galling lines in the film comes from Mitchell who tries to argue to O’Neal that the Black Panthers are just as bad as the Ku Klux Klan, and that there’s a right way and a wrong way to equality. While Hoover represents unabashed white supremacy fighting for the status quo, Mitchell fashions himself as a benign good guy who feels comfortable telling a Black man that his equality must be accomplished in a certain manner on a certain timeline that only a White man can deem as appropriate.
Into this conflict, we have Hampton and O’Neal. Kaluuya is instantly magnetic as Hampton. Even if you’ve never seen footage of the real-life Hampton, you’d have no doubt believing that this is the “messiah” figure the FBI was so worried about because he’s smart, captivating, and completely willing to give his life to the cause. But rather than simply carving out a hagiography of Hampton, King wisely chooses to emphasize his private moments with his partner Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, pictured below). It’s easy to be a freedom fighter if you’ve got nothing to lose, but Hampton’s relationship with Johnson shows the personal stakes. Part of what makes the “messiah” figure is that he or she is unencumbered by personal concerns, but King pushes back on that and shows that those personal concerns are the core of the character’s humanity. Hampton wasn’t just a figurehead who was giving speeches. He was a man who loved and had to be willing to make a sacrifice greater than his own life for the cause he believed in.
That’s in large part due to not only Kaluuya but the endearing and captivating Fishback. If Hampton, O’Neal, and the Bureau represent a larger power struggle, then Johnson is the movie’s emotional core. At one point, she reads a poem expressing her hopes and fears to Hampton, and it pulls the film out of the realm of the academic and historical and into a level of emotional realism that courses through the rest of the picture. Fishback arguably has the most difficult task in the entire picture because she needs to sell the personal stakes of the fight, and she immediately wins us over with her strong yet gentle performance. Kaluuya gets the benefit of the flashy monologues, but his performance is always at its strongest when he gets to play off Fishback.
Judas and the Black Messiah is currently available to stream on HBO Max until March 14.
Check out the trailer, below: