Opening Friday in some theaters and streaming on HBO Max for a month, “Judas and the Black Messiah” joins the short but slowly-growing list of feature films about the Black Panther Party.
As a primer on this essential piece of history, the new film – co-written by director Shaka King and Will Berson and based on a story by Keith Lucas and Kenneth Lucas — works spectacularly. Yet it’s not to be taken lightly; viewers will likely come away battle-scarred and worn to a nubbin, which is nothing compared to what the characters themselves endure.
The movie tells the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Chicago chapter of the BPP.
He’s a complex character, stuck between trying to feed hungry kids and bring together the splintered factions of the Black community, and also giving speeches calling for vigilance toward — and sometimes violence against — the police.
He also finds himself becoming closer with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a shy, soft-spoken volunteer, at a time when personal relationships might seem unwise.
As Fred rises through the ranks and becomes more prominent — and powerful — FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) takes notice, and sends down word that something is to be done about him.
But there really is no Fred Hampton story without his Judas, the wily, streetwise Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). Bill is initially seen posing as an FBI man as part of an elaborate scheme to steal cars.
Unfortunately he’s caught, and he faces prison time. But FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers him a deal. If he goes undercover in the Black Panther Party, and reports back to Roy, he can avoid jail.
Bill finds himself pulled in two directions as he begins to get behind some of the party’s principals, yet also finds a kind of loyalty toward Roy, who invites Bill into his home and treats him as an equal.
Kaluuya, who has nabbed Golden Globe and SAG nominations for his magnificent, thunderous, magnetic performance, is being touted for a best actor Oscar. (He already has been nominated, for his memorable showing in “Get Out.”)
He’s the most forceful character, and the most famous, but this is really Bill’s story, and Stanfield does most of the heavy lifting.
Bill is constantly conflicted with wanting to help the Party and take it to greater heights, and yet occasionally clashing with Fred, while also trying to navigate the tangles of the FBI’s duplicitousness.
There’s a certain wounded quality in Stanfield’s countenance, which translates to a kind of gentle approachability, yet with a coiled energy. He’s restless, trying to get a handle on his fate, but frequently thwarted.
He’s a large reason “Judas and the Black Messiah” is so good, but all the performances are rock solid, including Fishback (“The Hate U Give,” “Project Power”) in a role that would have been sidelined in most other films of this type. But she comes alive with her own strength.
Even Plemons becomes more than a “white devil.” He has eerie shades of gray as he struggles with his morals while trying to look as if he’s not struggling, cool in a sleek suit, trimmed, combed hair and freshly-shaved baby-face.
With this movie, “Judas and the Black Messiah” director King makes a huge leap to the big-time after a handful of short films, a little-seen feature and TV work.
King has a sure handle on his characters and performances, but the flow of “Judas and the Black Messiah” is like a riot, a simmering pot of tension that sears our emotions and rarely offers a breather.
Even as punishing a movie as “12 Years a Slave” had moments of artistry and reflection. And the recent “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” with Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in a small but unforgettable part, is often funny while still conveying a stirring sense of righteous injustice.
A sweet scene in “Judas and the Black Messiah” — the one where Fred and Deborah bond over recitations of Malcolm X speeches — has an undercurrent of rage and unrest.
Given the insidiously unfair nature of systemic racism, the anger is difficult, yet justified.
That aside, it’s a miracle that “Judas and the Black Messiah” is here. It never could have been made in the late sixties, when it takes place. Nor was it likely in the 1970s, or even the 1980s.
At one point it would have been seen as dangerous to our society, but now it’s essential to our healing. It forces us into the shoes of the oppressed and lets us know what it may be like to have to fight, all the time, and to continue hoping, against all evidence, for change.
All of the characters matter, and their struggles, either with or against one another, are part of one, big, hateful, shameful machine. King’s film does a mighty job of exposing its corrosive inner workings in a way that actually hurts.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
Written by: Will Berson, Shaka King
Directed by: Shaka King
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes