Carrying a few extra pounds and nailing the Illinois accent right down to the last syllable, Daniel Kaluuya commits himself full-bore to playing ’60s Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in this gripping true-life undercover thriller-cum-political investigation. It’s a towering performance: all coiled power, oratorical savvy and meticulously-researched authenticity. You’d never know the actor was from London’s Kentish Town, not Chi-town.
Hampton is the ‘Black Messiah’ of the title. At least, he is in the eyes of FBI head J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, somewhere beneath the blotchy prosthetics). Hoover is a reactionary and a racist who fears the rise of a firebrand to galvanise the Black community in ‘60s America. Whether it’s Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr (neither of whom feature in this more localised story), he wants them discredited, arrested or worse. Hampton is such a radical socialist, his fellow Panthers call him ‘Chairman Fred’. He couldn’t be any more on Hoover’s shitlist if he’d run over his cat.
Somewhere down the FBI food chain an agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), is tasked with infiltrating Hampton’s chapter of the Panthers. Enter William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, in a Get Out reunion with Kaluuya), a petty criminal who’s caught boosting cars in a con that involves masquerading as a Fed. Either find a way into Hampton’s team, he’s told, or face six years inside.
Bookended powerfully by clips from a much later interview with the real O’Neal and prefaced with contextualising news footage of Huey Newton and the Detroit Riots that calls to mind the recent Martin Luther King Jr doc MLK/FBI, Judas and the Black Messiah does a great job balancing probing political investigation with a more personal story of comradeship, betrayal, and ultimately, crushing guilt. Is O’Neal only masquerading as a Panther, you’re left to figure out, or is Hampton’s zeal rubbing off for real?
Director Shaka King stages Hampton’s fiery speeches with a crackle and energy you can practically taste. He also has a nice eye for Scorsesian violence too, knowing when to lean into his film’s crime thriller elements, and when not to. Face-offs in bars, shootouts in the street and one White Heat-like gun battle in a refinery show an America that’s turning into a war zone. They act as energised circuit breakers to long talky scenes about social welfare.
Not that those moments are dull. Kaluuya plays Hampton as a man of unshakable conviction who knows he needs to meet people halfway – including his own initially unimpressed girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, the film’s breakout). He’s telling his inner circle that ‘political power flows through the barrel of a gun’ one minute, and confiscating their guns for a tense negotiation with a Chicago gang the next. Will Berson and King’s script brilliantly shows how, beneath the fury, Hampton was willing to compromise to build a viable political platform. The evolution of Black radicalism is thrillingly charted here.
If the screenplay does miss a trick, it’s in not putting Hampton and O’Neal together a bit more often. Stanfield is great, both when O’Neal is puffed up with new-found political conviction and when he’s jolted back to his reality by the slimy Mitchell. But he’s an enigmatic figure that Judas and the Black Messiah never fully tries to decipher. It also never seems quite sure how tight the pair really were, or how reliant Hampton was on his supposed friend. So when the betrayal comes, a little of the anticipated pathos is absent.
Admirably, Judas and the Black Messiah is loath to judge O’Neal. Like the real Judas, he’s painted more as a tragic figure that one to be damned. He’s another Black man forced under the oversight of a more powerful, manipulative white man. The kind of man Hampton is fighting to free. Mitchell and Hoover, though? Feel free to hiss.
In US theaters and on HBO Feb 12. On VOD in the UK Feb 26.