‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Review: I Was a Panther for the F.B.I.
“I was in a fight.” This is Bill O’Neal’s summary of his participation in the radical black politics of the late 1960s, delivered a little defensively and with an emphatic disdain for those who remained on the sidelines. It’s an odd way of describing the dual roles he’s played as security chief for the Black Panther Party in Chicago and as a paid informant for the FBI. If he was in a fight there must have been quite a fight in him too.
O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield and briefly featured in documentaries, is one of the title characters in “Jude and the Black Messiah,” Shaka King’s tense, methodical historical drama. O’Neal’s counterpart – the target of his betrayal and deadly government hostility – is Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Panthers.
The phrase “Black Messiah” does not reflect romantic revolutionary exaggeration, but rather the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who viewed African American militants as the most serious internal threat to national security and feared the emergence of a people. Crowd inspiring national leader. As Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya takes on the burden of incarnating and casting out both the monster of Hoover’s imagination and a martyr of the Black Power movement. He faces more than the challenge of uncovering the aspiring, doubting, thinking person among these myths.
Hampton was only 21 years old when he was killed in a police operation on December 4, 1969. This is not a spoiler, just history, and I would argue that knowing your fate beforehand is crucial in order to honor “Judas and the Black Messiah.” “Although it plays like a thriller at times – with stakes and shootings, car chases and interrogations – the film is better understood as a political tragedy. King and Will Berson’s script is overlaid with ethical traps and ideological paradoxes, and while King’s fast-paced direction does not spare the tension, it also creates room for sadness, anger, and even a measure of amusement.
O’Neal’s duplicity – and Stanfield’s nervous, vulnerable, quick-witted performance – is the engine that drives the plot. He starts out as a car thief whose methods include impersonating an FBI agent on occasion. After he’s caught, a real agent, Roy Mitchell (a shrewd, phlegmatic Jesse Plemons) makes O’Neal a classic, irrefutable offer. He is instructed to go to meetings, gather information and approach the Panther leadership. The rewards include steak dinners, premium liquor, and envelopes full of cash. The penalty for non-cooperation is prison. The Faustian fine print, which includes the disposition of his soul, is implicit.
And this soul – a feeling for his conscience, his politics and his inner life – simply remains inaccessible. O’Neal’s ambiguous motivation in his struggle to reconcile the conflicting parts of his identity, or at least survive their inevitable collision, poses two kinds of problems. He’s a riddle that the filmmakers don’t quite solve for all their skill and dexterity. We observe his behavior – carefully entangling Mitchell, distorting Hampton’s favor, giving other panthers a brave, warlike face – but there is something fuzzy about him, like a figure in the background of an old photograph.
Which can be true to life. Or, the filmmakers may have purposely kept O’Neal at a distance. Villains have an opportunity to steal the spotlight from heroes. It would have been easy to make Judas a more interesting and complicated character while the Messiah would have been painted in broad, pious strokes.
That does not happen. When O’Neal’s betrayal takes off, Hampton’s charisma is the ballast, but Kaluuya presents him as something more than a simple saint or hero. During the great migration, Hampton’s parents had moved from Louisiana to Chicago, and British Kaluuya finds inflections of southernliness in his voice and manner – undertones of humor and politeness, an appreciation of the expressiveness of language.
Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a fellow activist who becomes Hampton’s lover, calls him a poet, and his ability to speak is felt widely. It is all too easy to treat the story as a series of speeches, however: the films love nothing as much as having a great man in front of a crowd. This film commendably has a deeper understanding of politics and a more nuanced argument for Hampton’s importance. To borrow a term from Antonio Gramsci, he is an organic intellectual, thinker, strategist and organizer.
And interestingly not a black nationalist. At the beginning of their advertisement, Johnson scolds him for rejecting political symbolism and cultural expression. He’s not interested in Africa or renaming schools and streets after black heroes. He is a Marxist-Leninist with a bluntly materialist understanding of the American system. When trapped in a burning building, he says, “My culture is water and escape.”
He tries to forge alliances with people who could share this culture by finding the leaders of the black and Puerto Rican street gangs and a group of poor whites who meet in front of a Confederate flag. At the same time, there is violent tension between the Panthers and the Chicago police, in which both sides are killed. The FBI’s counterintelligence program raises suspicions about the Panthers, and some of Hampton’s friends tell him to flee to Cuba or Algeria. O’Neal discovers that he isn’t the only informant in the group and that the office and movement are increasing their demands on his time and commitment.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a disciplined, passionate effort to bring clarity to a volatile moment, to forego the sentimentality and revisionism that too often tarnish films about the 1960s and race politics. It’s fascinating in and of itself, and all the more so when you watch it with other recent movies.
I think first of Sam Pollard’s documentary “MLK / FBI” about Hoover’s previous obsession with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr .; Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” on Malcolm X’s meeting with Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke; and some of the chapters in Steve McQueen’s “Small Ax” cycle on black politics in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. These films do not provide a comprehensive picture of the past, but together they make a strong argument for the vitality of historical filmmaking in yet another era of political crisis. They offer variety and food for thought. Water and escape, you could say.
Judas and the black messiah
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max. Please read the Policies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies in theaters.