One thing that always struck me about the Civil Rights Movement was how it shortened the lifespan of so many of its fiercest champions: Medgar Evers only made it to 37. Malcolm X and Dr. King each lived to be 39. It’s a deadly business, demanding change and speaking Truth to power. The aforementioned men weren’t just gifted orators. They were activist-poets, molding their message with such ferocious beauty that it could never be forgotten. In the terrific film, Judas and the Black Messiah, we meet Fred Hampton, another bearer of that torch. As the movie begins, Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) has reached the ripe old age of 21.
We see much of Hampton’s life through the eyes of Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). In 1968, O’Neal was low-grade thief who boosted cars by impersonating an FBI agent. Naturally, a scrawny 17-year-old kid with a badge draws all kinds suspicion, and O’Neal gets himself caught. The Bureau makes him an offer he can’t refuse: For his freedom, O’Neal must infiltrate the Black Panthers and funnel information on Hampton, the new chairman of their Illinois chapter.
It seems that Hampton has drawn the ire of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, looking spoooooky) for his impassioned rhetoric. To make matters worse, Hampton has an ambitious plan to unite disparate leftist factions–black and white–into the Rainbow Coalition. This consolidation could give the Movement a huge boost of momentum, and endow Hampton with enormous political influence. For Hoover, Hampton is a grave threat to the national power structure, and he must be dealt with.
Trouble arises when O’Neal is drawn to the gravitational pull of Hampton’s message. Hampton is brilliant and charismatic, and he bottles the rage of racial injustice–and Dr. King’s recent assassination–into a series of powerful speeches. “You are a poet,” Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), Hampton’s eventual girlfriend, tells him. Hampton expands O’Neal’s socio-political consciousness and gives him an increased role in the organization. Ultimately, O’Neal becomes an unstable believer in the Cause.
Naturally, that belief comes with a grave conflict of interest. O’Neal’s FBI handler (Jesse Plemons) hangs over him like an ominous cloud, dangling jail time and even threatening his life if he refuses to cooperate. By the second half of the film, O’Neal is a tortured soul: His allegiance to Hampton and his indentured obligation to the FBI are destined to intersect in a deadly way.
That’s really all the plot I want to give away. Those who know the history of all this won’t be shocked by the film’s final act. For anyone who doesn’t, I won’t dare detract from its impact. In either case, Black Messiah is a rare example of movie that actually grows stronger as it moves along.
Much of that strength derives from the lead performances. Kaluuya brings total emotional commitment his portrayal of Hampton, who was himself fueled by undiluted dedication. Kaluuya’s work here hearkens back to Denzel Washington’s ferocious turn as Malcolm X. Neither actor bears a strong resemblance to their subject, but each harnesses the spirit, the fire of both men to be completely believable. And much like Washington, Kaluuya can take a difficult role and make it seem effortless.
If Hampton was driven by fanatical focus, then O’Neal was a man consumed with doubt and paranoia. Stanfield infuses his performance with the nervous energy of somebody who doesn’t know where he stands with anybody around him. At different times, O’Neal must pretend to be glib, belligerent, devoted, or incredulous, with his life hinging on how well he pulls it off. Stanfield does a great job playing a man who lives on the edge of oblivion.
Judas and the Black Messiah feels like a spiritual cousin to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, in that Hampton’s fiery message also serves as his doom. Director Shaka King is remarkable effective at making the film’s closing scenes feel claustrophobic, as if the walls are closing in around Hampton. (Malcolm X also builds this gathering dread.) There are also similarities to another Lee achievement, BlacKkKlansman: Both films detail the awkward, destructive entanglement of law enforcement in the Civil Rights Movement, and both feature a black protagonist stuck in the middle of it all.
Those are both great movies, and this one belongs right beside them. Judas takes an important, unheralded story and tells it well. Unfortunately, the message behind it also remains heartbreakingly relevant: The battle for racial equality is still being waged, and there are moments when it seems like all will be lost. So many people have died on that battlefield, many with their whole lives in front of them. Some small solace can be found in that their words–the very poetry that got them killed–will live on in movies like Judas and the Black Messiah.
126 min. R. HBOMax