In the early 1990s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, I was an active member of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a grassroots group who helped to improve the lives of people living with the virus in ways gentle and compassionate and in other ways loud and dotted with instances of civil disobedience. The frequent chapter meetings gave me pause, however, when I felt their membership criteria felt too lax. Nobody was vetted and anyone attending could vote. In the back of my mind, I envisioned a federal infiltrator in our midst whose goal was to undermine our actions. I’d wonder that if this person existed, were they influenced by our message and did their loyalties shift?
I write this not to draw a direct comparison to the inner workings of the Black Panther movement of the late 60s and the extraordinarily compelling film by Skaha King, Judas And The Black Messiah, but to explore the journey I took while viewing it. Because King and his co-writer, Will Berson, have told the true story of the Chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party and the FBI informant sent to undermine his efforts, the film doesn’t quite deliver the expected genre tropes. I expected specific story beats, and when they didn’t happen, it gave me the opportunity to reflect on what the filmmakers have tried to accomplish. As a result, we have a cinematic rarity in which truth is better and deeper than fiction. By the end, I felt the gut punch of its message I would not have felt had we’d been given the “Hollywood” version.
The story begins with Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) using his fake FBI badge in order to steal another man’s car. When things go awry, O’Neal finds himself blackmailed by the FBI, who in the person of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen under heavy prosthetics) labels the Black Panthers a terrorist threat. O’Neal must work for them as an informant in order to take down Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and his Chicago Chapter. Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) will serve as O’Neal’s point person who dons a nice guy persona yet reveals the nefarious systemic racism at the core of the FBI’s plan. All of this seems like the perfect setup for a crime thriller, and under King’s direction, we get the exciting set pieces, the epic speeches, and the suspenseful close calls O’Neal experienced. King plays with every toy at his disposal to deliver an epic story in the style of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. With his excellent Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, King whips through spaces with breathtaking clarity. Whether he’s whooshing towards a male and female Panther member as they try to defend themselves during a police shootout, or when we stay tight on Hampton during one of his rousing speeches, King shows his gift for precise yet epic storytelling.
He has also been gifted with actors at the top of their game. Stanfield conveys the complexity of a man at war with himself, who clearly believes in the Panther’s mission (a position the real O’Neal did not admit to) yet feels the vise-grip the FBI has on him. A stunning scene in which he stares down Mitchell as Hampton gives a speech reveals so much just by the looks the men give each other. In another scene, we fully understand his inner turmoil as he says what he would do to a rat within the Panthers. A suspenseful sequence in which O’Neal is forced at gunpoint to hot-wire a car to prove he’s a real thief, shows us just how good an actor Stanfield is at playing a guy who is forced to act. As O’Neal rises through the ranks to become Hampton’s Chief of Security, I found myself covering my eyes at times worried that he was too close to the flame and would get caught. It’s tricky, complex, and the typical plot-driving engine of this type of story.
Kaluuya, however, brings something so different, so unexpected to this story, it forces you out of your comfort zone and causes you to see the film in a different light. Sure, Hampton has a galvanizing presence whether he’s in front of a crowd or with his fellow Panthers, but when he’s alone with his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a poet who works as a writer in the party, the film delivers such a wave of tenderness, allowing you to really feel what’s at stake. Kaluuya, already a veteran of outstanding films, outdoes himself here. Fishback delivers such a touching performance, a gentle soul who loves so deeply and yet who feels helpless as she witnesses the slaughter. The Black Panther Party may have fought violence with violence when necessary, but they also united disparate communities, fed hungry children, and passionately strived to preserve their dignity. It’s not difficult to connect the dots to the current Black Lives Matter movement and to understand that so much change is still vitally needed. Were they, like ACT UP, too democratic in allowing people with unknown backgrounds to rise through the ranks or did they lack the proper technology to check backgrounds?
Regardless, King gives us the emotional truths of its characters through its Agent/Informer and Leader/Romantic Partner dynamics. While the big expected reveals don’t come to pass because they didn’t happen in real life, King gets right to the heart of things by making his characters’ feelings and their mission matter the most. I felt punched in the stomach by how O’Neal’s storyline resolved, something so much more layered than fiction. King has reframed a movement and gives us a Fred Hampton, whether it’s by Kaluuya’s commanding depiction or the real man seen in a clip at the very end, worth remembering in this taut, exciting film.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Judas And The Black Messiah is currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
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