Spike Lee's Malcolm X is the definitive movie about its titular subject, and Ava DuVernay's Selma is the quintessential film about Martin Luther King leading the march through Birmingham, Alabama. Judas and the Black Messiah isn't quite as good as either of those pictures, but it's close enough to be worthy of standing alongside them. It tells the true story of Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party who was on track to become the next major civil rights leader before events occurred to prevent that from happening.
Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya plays Hampton. The story, however, starts off with William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief who gets busted and is looking at serious jail time. He gets a chance to avoid prison after receiving a visit from FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Mitchell, under the guidance of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), wants him to get close to Hampton and inform on any plans the Panthers may be hatching.
O'Neal agrees, only to find himself in a sticky situation. He grows to admire what Hampton is trying to do, including efforts to take care of people in the Black community. Having to betray a man he respects proves difficult. At the same time, he hears stories of what the Panthers do to “rats” in their ranks – and it's not pleasant. Neither is jail, meaning he's caught in a potential lose-lose scenario. Hampton, meanwhile, has no clue that he's being targeted by the feds. Instead, he falls in love with one of his colleagues, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), and works to unify Chicago's various Black groups to consolidate power.
Judas and the Black Messiah only works if we understand the influence of Hampton. That requires an actor who can project equal parts power and charisma. Daniel Kaluuya is the absolute right choice. He's electrifying in the scenes where Hampton is motivating the public to action, compassionate during the scenes with Deborah or his friends. Because the actor is so persuasive in the role, we comprehend exactly why the FBI fears his character. This is a man people listen to and seek to follow.
At the other end of the spectrum, LaKeith Stanfield is also outstanding. He makes palpable the psychological pressure O'Neal is under. Here's a guy just trying to avoid trouble, only to find that the presumptive escape is actually a lure to get him into even more trouble. That's a compelling dynamic, one that ties in with Hampton's rise. Drama stems from waiting to see when/how he sells Hampton out, and from watching how the decision weighs on him. Stanfield's scenes with Plemons are especially juicy, as the vice tightens more and more uncomfortably.
Director Shaka King envelops us in period details, making the era – as well as all the Chicago locations – come alive. That, in turn, makes it easy to become engrossed in the story. Even better, the picture adds to our understanding of how fraught the civil rights era was, when the white establishment genuinely feared Black revolutionaries. Has the United States truly progressed since then? Judas and the Black Messiah will have you debating that question.
I didn't know Fred Hampton's story prior to this film. After seeing it, his importance cannot be denied. The FBI may have been successful in preventing him from becoming the next Malcolm X, but he was clearly on the verge of leading the Black power movement into its next phase. Judas and the Black Messiah gives the man his due in riveting fashion.
out of four
Judas and the Black Messiah is rated R for violence and pervasive language. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.