'Judas and the Black Messiah': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

From left: Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

Yesterday’s powder keg, still simmering today.
2/12/2021

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton with LaKeith Stanfield as the FBI informant who betrayed both the Illinois Black Panther Party chairman and himself in Shaka King's powerhouse political drama.

The 1969 killing at age 21 of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton was a potent secondary plot point last year in Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7. That same government hit job gets expanded treatment and wields proportionately explosive impact in Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah, a historical thriller with an urgency that speaks even louder more than half a century later. Led by sensational performances from Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as William O'Neal, the FBI informant who infiltrated his inner circle, this is a scalding account of oppression and revolution, coercion and betrayal, rendered more shocking by the undiminished currency of its themes.

Opening Feb. 12 through Warner following its Sundance premiere, with a simultaneous month-long window on HBO Max, the film represents an impressive step up to weightier subject matter on an epic canvas both for director King (Newlyweeds) and co-writer Will Berson, whose background is in TV comedy. The biblical allusions of the title ripple through a drama as attentive to its characters' humanity as to their political significance. That heightens the tragic dimensions of this visceral account of a galvanizing Black leader elevated by a movement for social change and unity, and a white establishment intent on crushing him.

That's not to say that King, Berson and Kaluuya have canonized Hampton. The film doesn't hold back on the incendiary nature of his speeches, particularly in exhortations during one of his most stirring oratorical interludes to kill "pigs." But that inflammatory rhetoric is carefully contextualized as a direct response to sustained police brutality against the Black community, a vicious cycle manipulated by the shady counterintelligence unit taking directives from J. Edgar Hoover (a sinister, almost unrecognizable Martin Sheen).

The predawn raid on Hampton's apartment while he's sleeping next to his pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) is persuasively framed — using well-documented evidence — as a maximum-firepower assassination, painfully evoking the murder last year of Breonna Taylor.

Like Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods, King's film is masterful in its depiction of the struggle for Black self-determination and the ways in which that show of strength was interpreted as a threat by paranoid white alarmists like Hoover, ranting against the amorphous danger to "our way of life." And like Lee, King opens with a dynamic prologue that weaves together archival material with dramatized footage to retrace the emergence of the Black Panther Party. There are glimpses of Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Angela Davis intercut with a map showing the growth of chapters across the U.S.

The movement's programs to provide community support including food, health care, education and legal aid stand in sharp contrast to the words of Hoover, describing the Panthers as "the single greatest threat to our national security." He calls on the FBI to prevent the rise from among their ranks of a Black messiah with the potential to unite America's enemies.

The decision to tell the story from the perspective of the Judas figure underscores the filmmakers' interest in their principal characters' shades of gray. That includes Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who evolves from an ambitious young Federal agent offering a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" pact into a chilling Mephistophelean figure who puts aside his moral misgivings to turn the screws on his criminal informant, long after the terms of their initial agreement have been fulfilled.

The film's dazzling use of music weaves deep cuts from the period and spoken word together with a score by avant-garde jazz trombonist Craig Harris and Mark Isham. That distinctive mix is apparent from the opening, which unfolds to shards of atonal brass that establish an uneasy, noirish atmosphere where the suggestion of violence seems to be constantly churning. O'Neal is introduced both in recreated clips from the only on-screen interview he ever gave, for the PBS docu-series Eyes on the Prize II, and as a lanky figure in a trenchcoat and fedora passing himself off as an FBI agent to "boost" cars.

A narrow escape lands him in an interrogation room with Roy, who informs the largely apolitical Bill that he could face 18 months for stealing a vehicle plus five years for impersonating a Federal officer. "Or you can go home." That begins a series of encounters in which Roy attempts to convince his paid informant that the Panthers are merely the flip side of the Klan, sowing hatred and inciting terror. But as Bill gets accepted into the movement's Illinois chapter, rising to become security captain, his awakening political conscience and friendship with Fred and others stirs his corrosive conflict.

From his first scene, Kaluuya's Hampton has a raging fire in his belly, a quality that makes him a rousing communicator. "Anywhere there's people, there's power," is one of his refrains. His outreach to Chicago street gangs, Puerto Rican groups and even white neo-Confederates to form a Rainbow Coalition against the common obstacle of entrenched poverty and oppressive law enforcement makes him a visionary activist. One meeting with a gang leads to Bill being recognized from his earlier car theft. That sparks a fabulous scene with Panther badass Judy Harmon (Dominique Thorne), where she tests his story at gunpoint.

The role of women in the organization is represented also by Fishback's Deborah, a sharp young poet who challenges Fred's views on Black pride at an early meeting and lands a job with the Panthers as a speechwriter. A lovely, intimate scene over coffee shows the contrast between the firebrand socialist and the shy man Fred becomes around Deborah. His respect for her never wavers, especially when he's released after a prison stint on trumped up charges and finds her carrying their child.

Fishback, one of the most exciting discoveries of HBO's The Deuce, is a quiet tower of strength as a woman supportive of her partner's revolutionary mission yet acutely aware that her impending role as a mother alters her stake in it. A scene in which she conveys this to Fred in a tender poem written by the actress is especially beautiful.

Some of the secondary characters could have benefited from more meat on their bones, but there's a vivid sense of the heat intensifying as physical clashes with cops grow more frequent. A gunfire exchange in which the surrender of Panthers is followed by police torching their headquarters is one of the film's most exciting set-pieces. Likewise, nerve-jangling encounters with cops of inner-circle Panthers Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders) and Jake Winters (Algee Smith). These scenes show an escalating pressure-cooker of violence that hits home harder in light of last year's reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement. A touching interlude in which Fred visits Jake's mother (Alysia Joy Powell) puts a different, doleful perspective on the conflict.

Meanwhile, Hoover is crowing over his success at eliminating the heads of various Panther chapters but bristles at the power of fame to amplify their voices from behind bars. His response to the Illinois court's denial of Fred's appeal, stating in no uncertain terms that prison is "a temporary solution," and therefore inadequate, is a chilling moment. From that point on, King deftly tightens the knot in the pit of the viewer's stomach as Roy drops the "nice guy" persona completely, placing Bill in a soul-destroying position. Plemons' transformation into a suddenly much colder, more unyielding man is enormously effective.

For much of the duration (the film runs a fast-paced two hours and change), the burning charisma of Kaluuya's Fred makes him the sun around which everyone else orbits. Even after gaining his trust, Bill sticks mostly to the sidelines, squirming when visiting New Haven Panther George Sams (Terayle Hill) drops news of a rat in the organization being exposed and punished. But Stanfield has terrific moments in the climactic stretch, his haunted eyes (both in dramatic scenes and further snippets of the PBS interview) revealing a man as much a victim as a traitor — gradually broken by the experience of finding something to believe in but being relentlessly exploited to work against it.

Ultimately, this is an electrifying ensemble piece, its sorrow and outrage resonating over the postscripts detailing the personal and legal outcomes. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt gives the film a textured neo-retro look in which colors pop against the generally more muted tones of Sam Lisenco's production design and Charlese Antoinette Jones' period costumes, which add to the ambience without ever drawing attention to themselves. This is boldly assured, issues-based filmmaking with real heart, and above all with a saddened sense of how the past maintains its hold on the present.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Macro Media, Proximity
Distribution: Warner Bros., HBO Max
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, Alysia Joy Powell
Director: Shaka King
Screenwriters: Will Berson, Shaka King; story by Berson, King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas
Producers: Ryan Coogler, Charles D. King, Shaka King
Executive producers: Sev Ohanian, Zinzi Coogler, Kim Roth, Poppy Hanks, Ravi Mehta, Jeff Skoll, Anikah McLaren, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Ted Gidlow, Niija Kuykendall
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Costume designer: Charlese Antoinette Jones
Music: Craig Harris, Mark Isham
Editor: Kristan Sprague
Casting: Alexa A. Fogel
Rated R, 126 minutes