Judas and the Black Messiah begins with William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield) getting ready for the only TV interview he ever gave about his role in the death of the Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neal appears sweaty and uncomfortable. Before he starts speaking, the director, Shaka King, cuts to archival footage of the Black-liberation movement in the 1960s—speeches, songs, images of protest and police brutality that offer a moving yet chilling reminder of recent American history. Then the film cuts to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) as he presents these scenes of resistance to his agents and decries the rise of Black nationalism as “the greatest threat to our national security.”
King’s taut and tragic tale of Hampton’s killing by the Chicago police, who were working with the federal government, features an array of compelling characters. So the director’s decision to open with O’Neal is telling. In rendering the story of how Hampton died, King spotlights an unlikely figure: the suave car thief who was coerced by the FBI into infiltrating the Black Panthers as an informant, and who became something of a true believer even as he betrayed them.
This premise of Judas and the Black Messiah is a clever way of presenting a complicated piece of history. King (who wrote the film with Will Berson) presents Hampton as a community leader and passionate speaker who electrifies audiences, contrasting him with the fearmongering Hoover. But O’Neal gives Judas and the Black Messiah real narrative tension. He’s a slick cynic who comes to be both enchanted by Hampton’s dynamism and tortured by his own status as a saboteur. Stanfield is a chameleonic, emotional, and consistently surprising performer, and his work as O’Neal is among his very best. He bundles together the character’s rage and romanticism, unsettling the audience’s loyalties until the film’s deadly conclusion.
After the archival mash-up of the opening sequence, King pivots to the tone of a crime thriller. The film jumps back in time, showing O’Neal stealing a car (his favored scheme was flashing a badge and pretending to be an FBI agent), getting hauled in by the feds, and being manipulated by the agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). The screenplay is grounded in the cat-and-mouse dynamic of O’Neal trying to wheedle his way into the Black Panthers’ leadership. King evokes the stress of double-agent movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, which take place in criminal underworlds, but the organization he’s examining here has noble goals.
The movie isn’t shy about portraying how bloody the clashes between the Black Panthers and Chicago law enforcement could be. King depicts armed sieges and scenes of violence with matter-of-fact coldness. But the director takes care not to reduce the Black Panthers to militant cartoon characters. As Hampton, Kaluuya is a robust screen presence who delivers rousing speeches with aplomb, but he’s most compelling when his character is negotiating with other local radical groups or flirting with his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (an excellent Dominique Fishback). The actor imbues a man best known as a political martyr with vulnerability, humor, and charisma.
Judas and the Black Messiah both revels in the radical experiment of the Panthers and preemptively mourns the fate that awaits Hampton, who was shot in his bed by Chicago police in a predawn raid in 1969. That intertwining of narrative drama and real-life tragedy makes the film so resonant despite its period setting. Hampton’s message of grassroots liberation feels bold and current, as does his mistrust of the police and the state. As O’Neal ascends the ranks of the Panthers (he eventually served as Hampton’s chief of security), all the while passing information to the FBI, King shows how genuinely transformative the movement is for him.
With Judas and the Black Messiah, King has made a thriller that speaks to history without feeling didactic, that keeps the audience in suspense even though the ending was written decades ago. Kaluuya is earning well-deserved plaudits and award nominations for his work, but Stanfield is the film’s itchy, conflicted center, an antihero torn between nascent idealism and cruel realism. His anxious face at the beginning of the movie, mirrored by actual footage of O’Neal at the end, is the image I keep coming back to—a reflection of the deep sense of collective shame this story should stir in every viewer.