JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH movie poster | ©2020 Warner Bros.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH movie poster | ©2020 Warner Bros.

Rating: R
Stars: LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darnnell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Robert Longstreet
Writers: Will Berson & Shaka King, story by Will Berson & Shaka King and Kenny Lucas & Keith Lucas
Director: Shaka King
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: February 12, 2021

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH concerns two real-life figures, 1960s Black activist Fred Hampton, and FBI informant William O’Neal.

We’re in 1968 Chicago, with periodic interview sequences set later, in 1989. As depicted here (and as discernable in the historical record), Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) fulfills every aspect of being a messiah except for the supernatural one. He is passionate about seeing to it that people have food, medicine, housing, and education. Although he is a leader in the Black Panther Party’s Chicago chapter, “the Chairman” welcomes all into his Rainbow Coalition (a term he coined). While Hampton fights racism, and encourages his followers to do the same, his real target is a system that exploits poor people of all backgrounds. He is remarkably persuasive.

All of this makes Hampton a target of incensed, profoundly bigoted FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (an almost unrecognizable Martin Sheen). Afraid of “a black messiah,” Hoover insists that Hampton’s group be destroyed.

Enter O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief whose gimmick includes impersonating law officers. This gets him arrested. However, O’Neal’s soon-to-be FBI handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) says the charges can go away. All O’Neal has to do is infiltrate the Panthers and provide information on them. This comes with a nice cash stipend, plus a car.

Since O’Neal doesn’t consider himself to be political, and since he’s had no problems ripping people off, this isn’t an immediate moral issue. Soon, though, he realizes that he’s in grave danger if he’s found out. More, the FBi begins making demands that are harder to tolerate.

Director Shaka King, who co-wrote the screenplay with Will Berson, from a story they crafted with Kenny Lucas & Keith Lucas, creates a strong sense of both place and purpose. While all those guns may or may not have been a good idea (they seem to offer scant protection when the police become involved), the filmmakers convince us that Hampton’s goals are largely selfless and for the good of the community. Kaluuya makes Hampton as charismatic and driven as he ought to be, given the ease with which he gains followers.

Stanfield is convincing as well, but here’s where JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH gets slightly lopsided. The title implies the two figures, O’Neal and Hampton, will get more or less the same weight, and in fact, Kaluuya as Hampton is being touted for a “supporting” performance (he’s nominated in that category for Golden Globe and SAG Awards). O’Neal is clearly the more complicated of the two.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH movie poster | ©2020 Warner Bros.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH movie poster | ©2020 Warner Bros.

And yet, the filmmakers, like the Panthers, naturally gravitate toward Hampton. Stanfield delivers O’Neal’s fear, anger, and sorrow, but the script doesn’t provide us (or the actor) with scenes that show us who the man aspires to be, only what he does.

Dominique Fishback shines as Hampton’s loyal, articulate lover, and Plemons has perfected Mitchell’s aw-shucks heartiness. Sheen, who often turns up as the bad guy in socially significant films, gives Hoover terrifying self-righteousness.

The score by Craig Harris and Mark Isham conveys people’s states of mind with dissonant, melancholy jazz, with the occasional pop/soul tune ramping up energy and cementing the era.

The closing titles, explaining what happened in the aftermath of what we see, make us want to know more. JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH may not have the scope to give us all the details we might crave. Still, it illuminates a moment in the civil rights movement, and appalling abuse by police and federal authorities, well enough to move us and spark both our curiosity and our outrage.

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