Producers: Ryan Coogler, Charles D. King and Shaka King Director: Shaka King Screenplay: Will Berson and Shaka King Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff, Caleb Eberhardt, Robert Longstreet, Amber Chardae Robinson and Alysia Joy Powell Distributor: Warner Bros.
The killing of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers, in an assault on his apartment by a squad of local law enforcement on December 4, 1969, was briefly alluded to in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” but in Shaka King’s film it takes center stage. The result is another impassioned, riveting story of promise and betrayal at a combustible moment in twentieth-century American history.
Daniel Kaluuya is older than the man he’s portraying was at the time of his death (in 1969 Hampton was only twenty-one), but he conveys the charismatic personality and ability to unite disparate groups—not only black activists and street gangs but groups of Latino activists and white supremacists—in a common cause that made Hampton seem so dangerous to officials like J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, who’s about as far removed from President Bartlett here as it’s possible to get). Hoover, and establishment figures at the local level, came to see him as the potential “messiah” who could lead the sort of social revolution that terrified them.
So they targeted him. It’s recognized that they planted informants among the Panthers, but the script by King and Will Berson focuses on one of them—William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), who by his own admission got close to Hampton under FBI supervision, becoming the branch’s head of security, and actually provided authorities with the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment that allowed them to execute their assault so precisely. (The film opens with the recreation of an excerpt from an interview O’Neal gave, outlining his role but defending himself, shortly before his death, an apparent suicide, in 1990.)
Stanfield gives a stunning performance of the conflicted man, a petty thief who was forced by threat of prosecution to insinuate himself into Hampton’s circle and became a supposedly loyal lieutenant, all the time worrying that he might be unmasked as a snitch at any moment while doing the bidding of his FBI handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Mitchell is an intriguing character, too—a true believer who sees the Panthers and the KKK as cut from the same cloth but in one scene is distressed by a conversation with Hoover that is crudely racist—and Plemons gives him some interesting shading.
Just as important as the relationship between O’Neal and Mitchell to the story is that between Hampton and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who met him as a demure student entranced by what she saw as the poetic quality of his language and became his girlfriend and confidante. She was pregnant with his child at the time of the raid, and it’s her description of the circumstances of his death that’s followed by the script. Fishback does as masterly job of portraying her development from shy observer to committed supporter, capturing Johnson’s understandable fear over the dangers that Hampton faced, from prosecution to legalized assassination.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is populated by an array of intriguing secondary characters, some fleshed out well but most remaining only sketched in. Among the more notable are several other players in the branch hierarchy: Dominique Thorne’s Judy Harmon, Algee Smith’ Jake Winters and Jermaine Fowler’s Mark Clark. And though the film has its softer moments—as in those between Hampton and Johnson on the one hand and O’Neal and Mitchell on the other—for the most part it’s sharp, fast-moving and angry, in many respects reminiscent of a description a president once applied to a very different film—it’s like writing history with lightning. Sometimes the film moves with such ferocity that it’s difficult to keep track of precisely what’s happening—which was probably the makers’ idea.
Much of the film’s visceral power comes from the writing, acting and direction, but the technical contributions should not be overlooked. The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and production design by Sam Lisenco (using Cleveland as a stand-in for Chicago) and costumes by Charlese Antoinette Jones are all excellent, conveying the period and the editing by Kristan Sprague and score by Craig Harris and Mark Isham are important contributions to the overall impact.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is obviously an activist piece of filmmaking, in many details necessarily speculative. But it is intermittently, and at times overwhelmingly, powerful.