One of the most jarring notes in the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther is the character of Everett Ross, a white CIA operative who fights alongside Wakandans to defeat the Black militant Killmonger. Never mind that for decades, the real CIA surveilled and murdered many African revolutionaries and Black Panthers. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (also 2018) features a similar sugar coat, making Ron Stallworth, the Black cop who infiltrated the KKK, into a hero, while papering over his role in counter-intelligence programmes targeting Black radical organisations. 

Even in the most politically engaged Hollywood movies, the thoroughly racist legacies of American law enforcement are rarely shown unvarnished. So the fact that Judas and the Black Messiah even exists – a major studio film about the assassination in 1969 of the 21-year-old Fred Hampton, charismatic deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party – is in itself remarkable. Writer-director Shaka King’s film lays bare the dirty war that the FBI and American police have waged for years against Black Americans. 

 King tells the story behind Hampton’s murder – as he lay sleeping next to his pregnant fiancée – from the point-of-view of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who infiltrated the Illinois Black Panthers and shared the floor plans of Hampton’s home with the authorities. He’s a snitch, a spy, a mole – an ever-alluring cinematic trope. King and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt lean into the story’s noirish currents: the camera glides along wintry Chicago streets cloaked in grey-blue shadows, and wisps of smoke swirl around shifty, shallow-focused faces. 

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Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

But if the visual tones are murky, King’s perspective is decidedly not. He directs Judas and the Black Messiah with a refreshingly flinty sense of moral clarity, evident right from the film’s opening montage, which cuts from an archival clip of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale listing the party’s mutual aid missions – free breakfast for children, free healthcare, free schools – to the movie’s J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) declaring the Panthers the “greatest threat to internal security of the country”. 

That vaguely invoked “threat to security” and the limitless warrant it grants to law enforcement is a central preoccupation of Judas and the Black Messiah, made bristlingly clear by one of the few fabrications in a film that otherwise seems to hew close to the facts. It was a car theft that got O’Neal entangled with FBI agent Roy Mitchell and faced him with the choice between going to prison and infiltrating the Panthers, but King and his co-screenwriter Will Berson add another twist: O’Neal is shown impersonating an FBI agent during his heist. “A badge is scarier than a gun,” he explains to Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) in an interrogation cell. The Feds, he implies, can get away with even robbery. But when O’Neal goes from a thief in cop’s clothes to a cop in a comrade’s beret, he quickly realises that the Feds can – and routinely do – get away with much worse. 

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Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Through O’Neal’s wary eyes, we get to know Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and his inner circle, played with style and grit by Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith and Dominique Thorne. It’s a joy to see a fine actor like Kaluuya sink his teeth into the fiery speeches that won Hampton scores of followers and helped forge multiracial coalitions with the Young Lords, a Latino group, and the white Young Patriots. It’s a rousing yet humble performance that renders Hampton less a messiah than a man with bone-deep conviction – who’s vulnerable, all the same, to endearing shyness in intimate moments with his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (an outstanding Dominique Fishback).  

But it’s Stanfield who has the trickier job here, playing a cipher who’s always just a few turns away from a cliché. O’Neal only ever gave one onscreen interview in his life, in the 1987 PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize 2, parts of which are re-enacted and excerpted in the film. He comes off as a slippery, confused figure in that interview, his later actions (revealed in the film’s gut-wrenching postscript) belying his blasé answers.

Building on his skilful portrayals of characters lost under layers of dissimulation in Get Out (2017) and Sorry to Bother You (2018), Stanfield crafts an onscreen version of O’Neal that remains, always, just out of reach. He displays a twitching, increasingly corrosive unease as he rises up the Panther ranks and sinks deeper into the FBI’s trap; his motivations, however, are never fully placeable. That psychological remove emerges as the strength of a tragic film that’s ultimately less enamoured of a tortured soul than enraged by a twisted system.

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Originally published: 5 February 2021