Judas and the Black Messiah is a provocative movie title and the film that bears it lives up to the expectations it generates. Director Shaka King plunges us into action in the opening scene, where a little-remembered figure named Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) brazenly steals a car using a counterfeit FBI badge as his weapon of choice. His immediate capture enables a true-blue FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) to blackmail him into working as a stool pigeon. He infiltrates the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and works himself into the inner circle of its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Having recently watched Sam Pollard’s riveting documentary MLK/FBI it’s especially interesting to view this story from the inside. Martin Sheen, under a pound of makeup, briefly plays America’s top G-man J. Edgar Hoover, who was convinced that all black leaders and organizations were Communist-run or inspired. I confess that I was one of those naïve Americans who blindly accepted Hoover’s accusations, amplified by the mainstream media, and viewed the Panthers in a negative light.
Chicago leader Fred Hampton wore a Mao-like hat and said he wanted to “replace capitalism with socialism.” The mantra he urged his followers to chant along with him was “I am a revolutionary” and that’s how he saw himself. Violence was not an end in itself (as the government would have had us believe) but a means of making headway in a gang-dominated city. The screenplay, credited to Will Berson and director King, from a story by Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas, portrays Hampton as a true believer who didn’t show one face to the world and another to his intimates. He was a true believer who used free breakfast programs for kids and medical care as proof of his concern for the community and all oppressed people.
The strength of this film is its immediacy, and its avoidance of agitprop. The apolitical outsider O’Neal, well played by Stanfield, is our avatar in this dangerous game of cat and mouse. We learn about the Panthers just as he does, and can’t help but admire Hampton, especially in this charismatic, commanding portrayal by Kaluuya.
How true to life is this film and the events it depicts? I know enough not to get my history from the movies, but this one is highly persuasive and inspires me to want to learn more about a period I lived through but didn’t fully experience.