Throughout Judas and the Black Messiah, you simply can never take your eyes off Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Party leader who would later become a twenty-one-year-old martyr and revolutionary icon. One of the larger achievements of the movie, which intimately and expansively chronicles the events leading up to his murder in a 1969 police raid, is that it restores the man to righteous life, reclaimed as an energetic, big-hearted figure. Kaluuya, an actor of endless charisma and versatility, finds the same qualities in Hampton himself. As the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, he is the target of much scrutiny from J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who’s shown directing his FBI agents to take action against this potential “Black Messiah” and the all those he is soon to inspire. And we can see why Hoover’s so rattled: The Fred Hampton we meet is a born activist, a master orator and a ferocious critic of the white power structure. He urges his fellow Panthers to embrace socialism, practice militancy and reject any culture — even traditional African culture — that might distract from the revolution.
But Fred’s also so much more: an educator to young kids, feeding them mentally and physically, and a builder of diverse communities, forging unlikely bonds with black, latino and white activists across one of America’s most segregated cities. He’s a cynic and an idealist, a dreamer and a doer. He has a tactician’s understanding of war but proves touchingly shy in matters of love, as observed by his fellow Panther and girlfriend, Deborah Jones (an achingly delicate Dominique Fishback). In short, Fred is almost too singular and overwhelming a presence to be contained by this sweeping but inevitably limited movie, as it attempts the common biographical drama task of threading a needle, of trying to capture the lived-in messiness of life and reign it in.
Directed with gliding energy by Shaka King, who cowrote the script with Will Berson (from a story by Keith and Kenny Lucas), King makes the most of his narrative economy, which is reinforced by the wide-frames of Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography. It’s also a film that occupies a unique place in the facets of cinema focused on the history of the civil rights movement. Up to this point, Hollywood movies about the Black Panther Party aren’t all too common. And given the American film industry’s long-standing preference for reassuring, white-centered narratives of racial justice, it feels almost radical to see a major studio movie center on the grass-roots activism and political spectacle of the Black Panthers — something usually kept to nonfiction work. Judas and the Black Messiah even opens with mock footage, as we see William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty crook turned paid FBI informant, being interviewed in 1989 for the film Eyes on the Prize II. Even those unware of the events he’s about to speak on (in this shopworn framing-device), there’s something in Stanfield’s uneasy eyes that immediately identifies William as the Judas of the title. Soon the story flashes back to a Chicago night in 1968, when he’s arrested for car theft — a crime he notably commits not with a weapon but with a fake FBI badge. His skill at impersonation soon sees him enlisted by a real federal agent, Roy Martin Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), to infiltrate the Panthers and help bring Hampton down.
William thus becomes the audience’s point of narrative entry into the movement. It’s through his conflicted vantage that we get to know Fred and other party comrades (played by the likes of Dominque Thorne, Algee Smith and Ashton Sanders), some of them fictional or composite characters, and nearly all of them destined to make painful sacrifices for the cause. Soon stories of a brutal murder of a possible informant raises the stakes dramatically for Will, who lives in fear of what his comrades might do if they find out he’s a mole. He’s, by his own admission, a model spy: a man with no apparent political allegiances or personal investment in civil rights struggles, as he reassures Mitchell early on. But Judas and the Black Messiah knows how close the political and the personal can be, and it doesn’t take Will long to suspect that Mitchell’s line about the Panthers being as violent, extremist and morally indefensibly as the KKK might be a lie concocted to secure his loyalty.
Some of the movie’s most gripping moments arise when we see that loyalty begin to weaken, especially in the heat of an explosive Panthers-versus-police standoff that underscores the movie’s aesthetic debt to some of the great American crime films of the ’70s. When Fred leaves the picture after getting a bogus prison sentence, Will soon takes a larger organizational role which begins to deplete the movie of some of its energy and narrative/character interest. But Will’s perspective also admirably steers the movie even more away from Hollywood uplift, casting the entire story in troubling shades of gray. There is nothing defensible or morally ambiguous about the FBI’s campaign, which is steeped in levels of racism so venomous that even Mitchell is taken aback at one point. But the acts of violence we see the Panthers commit in retaliation and self-defense are presented with cold, matter-of-fact precision: None of it is rationalized, condemned nor romanticized. The logistical confusion that sometimes besets the narrative, splintering outward even as it barrels to its grim conclusion, is matched by creeping undercurrents of doubt at every turn.
To call this movie “timely” would be overlooking that it’s more timeless; as everything that it shows us has been with us, and may be with us, for a very long time. And Judas and the Black Messiah is too honest to offer reassurances or solutions, but if nothing else, its tribute to Fred Hampton does warrant the final word (in the film’s most deeply felt scene): “America’s on fire right now, and until that fire is extinguished, don’t nothing else mean a damn thing.” Boasting a chill-inducingly magnetic Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah is a film that admirably never panders, looking with fierce vigor at America’s power dynamics both intimately and collectively.
Judas and the Black Messiah premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It will be available in Select Theaters and to stream on HBO Max on February 12.