By word and deed, Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton lived and died for the people. He barely had time in his brief life to do much else — be a father to his son, or nurture his movement into an enduring cultural platform — before he was assassinated in his bed during a bloody 1969 raid led by the Chicago Police, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and the FBI.
The Feds had help from an inside man, Bill O’Neal, the hard-to-pin-down subject of director Shaka King’s riveting Judas and the Black Messiah (★★★★☆). As portrayed by the ever-unpredictable LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta), O’Neal is a mercurial mischief-maker, a steadfast soldier who’s also a calculated infiltrator. Compromised by his own crimes and impulsiveness, he’s groomed as a plant by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who spells out the Bureau’s purpose in targeting Hampton and the Black Panther Party.
The Panthers are no different from the Klan, Mitchell asserts to O’Neal — just a flip side of the same racial animus that must be eradicated from this nation, by whatever means J. Edgar Hoover deems necessary. Martin Sheen, in questionable makeup, appears as a fire-breathing Hoover to declare the Panther Party “the single greatest threat” to U.S. national security. Agent Mitchell, presented as a reasonable family man, seems to take Hoover’s words to heart, although Plemons’ prismatic performance does reveal glimmers of Mitchell’s good conscience. He’s not fully invested in the Bureau’s sometimes nefarious tactics.
O’Neal seems to put little stock in Hoover’s or Mitchell’s moral arguments. His motivations are more opaque. (The real O’Neal, shown in archival interview footage, comes off as, frankly, deluded about the role he played in COINTELPRO.) Operating on his own wily wavelength, often the only one laughing at some inside joke, O’Neal is fascinating for seemingly not having any horse in the race, when everyone around him is literally in a battle for their lives.
The brother- and sisterhood he’s invaded are taking up arms to protect, preserve, educate, and empower their community, while Mitchell and O’Neal (the latter, reluctantly) plot the Party’s ruin. King keeps that tension roiling, leveraged on the magnetic presence of Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, the man at the center of such turbulent events and emotions.
As effective in scenes depicting “Chairman Fred” as a forceful, charismatic speaker as he is in gentle loving mode with partner Deborah Johnson (a wonderful Dominique Fishback), Kaluuya embodies a strength girded by compassion. Kaluuya’s dynamic portrayal — like the film’s period costumes and ‘fros, and the double bass-heavy groove of Craig Harris and Mark Isham’s score — swaggers with style and gravitas.
Through him, Hampton’s message feels urgent, his conviction persuasive. He rouses crowds to rise up in revolution, and marshals individuals like his lieutenant Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders, terrific in the role) to risk their lives for a cause. Betrayer Bill O’Neal might not have admitted, or even known, whose side he was on, but the movie plainly lands on the side of admiration for Hampton’s resolve to live and die for the people.
Judas and the Black Messiah is in theaters and available for streaming February 12 on HBO Max. Visit www.hbo.com.
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