Part history lesson, part undercover thriller, Judas and the Black Messiah takes it as read that the audience knows the bare-bones facts about the Black Panther movement. And just in case they don’t, there are three powerful performers in key roles to help bounce over the gaps.
These are the shapeshifting Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther “Chairman” Fred Hampton, dead at 21, killed while asleep in nothing less than a state assassination. LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, the mole who fed information about the Panthers to the police. And Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell, the FBI handler running O’Neal.
We meet O’Neal before we meet the Panthers – he’s an audacious car thief using fake FBI ID to part a fancy vehicle from its owner, a scam that lands him in a police station, where rising FBI star Mitchell makes him an offer – infiltrate the Black Panthers or go to jail. The studiously only-in-it-for-himself O’Neal chooses liberty… and jeopardy, and has soon wormed his way into the inner circle of Panther Fred Hampton, a rising star in the movement.
From here Serpico is the essential drift of the film, the initially sceptical O’Neal impressed by the Panthers’ social work (breakfast clubs for kids, clinics) though never quite buying the politics of revolution, socialism and armed struggle. Mitchell, meanwhile, in encounters owing something to the Deep Throat meetings in All the Presidents’ Men, finds his faith in his own cause – the FBI – shaken by the mendacity of his own boss (seedy Robert Longstreet) and the out-and-out race-war language of agency head J Edgar Hoover (a sclerotic-looking Martin Sheen).
Hampton the man rather than Hampton the electrifying firebrand and electrifying speaker is laid out in a romantic subplot featuring Dominique Fishback (who you might remember from The Deuce, whose street-neon-grunge vibe is a visual influence on this film).
These two, O’Neal and Fishback’s Deborah Johnson, are the boundaries, the twin poles of possible outcomes for the activist Hampton – death or domesticity. And since this is 1969 and the deaths of civil rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King lie heavy in the air…
For people who think that Black Lives Matter sometimes take things a bit too far, Judas and the Black Messiah might come as a bit of shock. Looking back from a time when you’re branded a leftie because you recycle your burger wrapper, the talk of open armed struggle and revolution on the streets, all served up with quotes from Chairman Mao offered without a trace of irony, is a signifier of how much the world has changed politically in the half century since.
That is this film’s great strength, as a corrective. Factually it doesn’t mess about. The events we see on the screen are all backed up in the archive. Hampton existed, was shot at dawn in a police raid in which the Panthers fired one shot – and that was probably as a result of a death spasm – while the police fired around 90. Hoover did have a special unit designed to destroy the Panthers. If Hoover was Pontius Pilate, O’Neal was his Judas.
For all the heft of the three main players – Kaluuya, Stanfield, Plemons (who seems neatly to be fitting into the slot once taken by Philip Seymour Hoffman) – there’s a touch of vagueness in the writing of their characters. We’re held back at arm’s length, the better to drink in the history lesson, perhaps.
Director Shaka King avoids the cliches of films like this. The expected superfly soundtrack of Sly Stone or Curtis Mayfield is absent. Instead we get plangent jazzy fanfares on a soundtrack largely by Mark Isham, while King’s visual style also ducks the swivel pans, zooms or graininess you might expect.
Grain more generally might have been welcome, ambiguity also. There’s a bit of hole in Judas and the Black Messiah where real human beings should be. A fantastic film in many ways – Kaluuya deserves an Oscar – it doesn’t make it easy for itself when it comes to making that last vital connection.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021