By Andrea Thompson
“Judas and the Black Messiah” deserves much of the praise it will surely receive, if only for the performances alone, which are stellar. The film could’ve easily played it safe by giving us a simplistic study of activists under siege by those who were bent on preventing their mission by any means necessary. Not that that isn’t the main thread, as it’s clear that the film’s allegiances lie with those trying to make change rather than prevent it. But as “Judas” makes clear, there’s far more complexity to this deceptively simple story of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya in all his charismatic glory) and the man who would play a pivotal role in bringing him down, FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).
As Stanfield plays him, O’Neal is a petty thief who is backed into a corner partly thanks to his unusual method of carjacking, wherein he would impersonate a police officer and even use a fake FBI badge. As O’Neal shrewdly puts it, “A badge is scarier than a gun.” When he’s caught and facing jail time, he meets Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), an actual FBI agent who recruits him as an informant and tasks him with infiltrating the Panthers and getting as close as he can to Hampton. O’Neal reluctantly accepts and quickly rises in the ranks, only to discover how in over his head he is and how the stakes are.
What unfolds is a modern American tragedy, all the more so because nearly everyone in it believes they’re doing the right thing. Mitchell sincerely believes in the righteousness of his mission and that the Panthers are just as guilty of spreading hate as the Klan. He’s also firmly convinced in his own goodness, since he’s not overtly racist like his colleagues, and played a key role in solving the infamous murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. Mitchell also makes a point to treat O’Neal kindly, even inviting him into his home. But the film refuses to use him in a Joseph Gordon-Levitt type role as the good cop, revealing his true colors and what he’s willing to do to take Hampton down. And why.
Many of the Black characters also get to be flawed and even commit reprehensible acts. “Judas” doesn’t downplay the horrific cost of their actions, or soften the sometimes incendiary rhetoric of the Panthers themselves (without justifying the police response), or the divisions among those in the community who share many of their goals. Not everyone is given the same benefit however, and the film could also stand to look inward and examine why they make a point to state how the Panthers are bent on respecting Black women while not giving them much to do besides support or react to the men. In another tired instance of the same damn trope, Dominique Fishback is placed squarely into the category of love interest as Hampton’s girlfriend and eventual fiancée Deborah Johnson, now known as Akua Njeri, who is also an activist and leader in her own right, but is only seen in terms of her relationship to Hampton.
Politics also take center stage to the extent that we rarely get to know any character outside of them, or who they are when they’re not fighting. As talented as Kaluuya and Stanfield are, they can’t infuse their characters with a complex backstory the film doesn’t delve into, and their talent almost works against the real life people they’re portraying. O’Neal was apparently a teenager when he met Mitchell, and was thus even more vulnerable to his manipulations. For O’Neal, Mitchell seems to have become not just a role model as the movie indicates, but a kind of surrogate father, which at least partially explains why he was willing to take actions that would result in his becoming twisted with guilt for the rest of his life, and the tragic way it played out.
Kaluuya’s intensity is also undergirded by his long experience as an actor, which wouldn’t be detrimental if it didn’t tend to offset just how young Hampton actually was at the time of his murder. When he was killed at age 21, he hadn’t only achieved leadership status in the Panthers, he had united an astoundingly diverse group of people to his cause, from some of the most powerful street gangs in Chicago to a neo-Confederate group. It’s little wonder that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover feared what both Hampton and the Panthers could become.
Perhaps “Judas and the Black Messiah” would’ve benefited from getting the miniseries treatment, since it manages to capture the complexity of much of the politics of the day, if not always of the people involved. The greatest irony is that its two leads remain something of a mystery even after all that time spent.