In the early morning hours of December 4, 1968, a group of Chicago police officers raided the apartment of Illinois Black Panther chapter leader Fred Hampton and executed him as he lay in his bed next to his nine-month pregnant girlfriend. The raid was coordinated by the FBI, and aided by an informer who not only supplied the layout of the apartment but who also slipped Hampton barbiturates to make him unresponsive at the time of the raid. That person’s name was William O’Neal.
Judas And The Black Messiah is a powerful retelling of the events leading up to that moment, of how the FBI recruited O’Neal, a car thief who was brazenly impersonating an FBI agent in the commission of his crimes, and used him to infiltrate the Panthers’ Chicago chapter for information on what the group may be planning. Seemingly apolitical, O’Neal agreed to become the FBI’s mole within the group if only to avoid the stack of criminal charges facing him if he didn’t. He joined the group and quickly gained Hampton’s confidence. But as the FBI pressed him for more information and to do things in more direct action against the Black Panthers, he found himself struggling and failing to find the strength to quit.
Despite its title, director and co-screenwriter Shaka King avoids any obvious Christ parallels in both the screenplay and the cinematography. There are no Last Supper tableaus or Pietas of Hampton’s lifeless body being cradled.The Messiah of the title is something that Hoover designated in his fear of a race war. Ironic, then, that it is Hoover who ultimately insures that Hampton becomes a martyr to his cause, even as it was something Hampton expected to happen for himself.
The true power of the film comes not from the story it tells, though it is indeed powerful in its own right, but from the two actors at the heart of the telling – Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as O’Neal. Kaluuya is magnetic as Hampton. He is utterly believable as a man barely out of his teens who can possesses the confidence and charisma to get crowds chanting “I am, a revolutionary!” and yet can still display a shyness and vulnerability when he first meets the love of his life, Deborah Johnson. Stanfield does work that is on par with Kaluuya, taking us on O’Neal’s journey as first a nervous infiltrator to someone who understands and sees the value of what the Panthers are fighting for, though he begins to question the means by which both sides are willing to go to.
Jesse Plemons as the FBI agent who recruits and runs O’Neal comes off at times as a pleasant family man just doing a job, the banal face of the institutionalized racist policies he is helping to enforce. Martin Sheen’s FBI chief J Edgar Hoover is a bit of a let down though. The script pretty much presents him as a one-note racist paranoid, which is pretty much what the script needs him to be. But the result still feels somewhat cartoonish in its villainy.
Agent Mitchell’s recruitment argument that the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan are simply two sides of the same coin, both bent on dividing the country is an accusation that still echoes today in regards to current, on-going civil rights struggles with Black Lives Mater. It is a stark reminder that although the events depicted in the film are fifty years old now, we still have a ways to go. Hopefully, another reminder like this film will not be needed in another fifty years.