Movie Review: A gripping story of the Real Black Panthers — “Judas and the Black Messiah”

“Get Out” was Daniel Kaluuya‘s breakout film, a satiric, suspenseful horror blockbuster that generated a lot more discussion of its intensity, gimmick and twists than of its good performances.

But taking on charismatic Black Panther recruiter, leader and born-politician Fred Hampton, the “Messiah” of “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a next level performance. The English-born Kaluuya scorches the screen with an undiluted blast of star power, a thrilling, moving portrayal of human dimensions in a larger-than-life scale.

He gives this account of Hampton’s life in the Black Panthers and that of the “Judas” FBI informant who betrayed him a magnetic presence at its center, an electrifying star turn that brings to vivid life a major figure in civil rights/civil disobedience history, something sorely-missed in the Malcolm X of “One Night in Miami.”

Director and co-writer Shaka King (TV’s “Shrill” and “People of Earth” episodes) seeks to turn this tale of civil rights martyrdom into a suspenseful story of out-of-control government paranoia and a cunning pawn who figures in FBI efforts to prevent J. Edgar Hoover’s late-life nightmare, that African America would produce “a
Black Messiah” who would unify the country behind an effort to redress racial, social, economic and judicial injustices visited upon his people.

That’s how Hoover (Martin Sheen, superbly sinister) put it in directing his subordinates, the (white) men in charge of watching Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and — once they were gone — Fred Hampton, party chairman of the Black Panther Party of Chicago.

Young, a charismatic off-the-cuff speaker and canny strategist, Hampton ran the Panthers’ chapter in what he called “the most segregated city in America,” Chicago, preaching “Rebellion is our only solution” and “Political power flows from the barrel of a gun.”

Militant? You bet. But the fact that he was presiding over a supplemental education system and pre-school breakfast program for Chicago’s underprivileged, his bravery and ability to meet with street gangs like The Crowns, the Puerto Rican Young Lords and even KKK-like white underclass Young Patriots in creating the first “rainbow coalition” made him all the more dangerous to the always-paranoid Hoover.

So when a bold car thief named Bill O’Neal, who used a fedora, trenchcoat and fake FBI badge to con Black men out of their Cutlasses, tumbles into the legal system, Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) is tasked with “turning” him, with a little leverage.

Car theft is a decent stretch in prison, but impersonating a Federal officer? Uh oh.

That’s how O’Neal, played by the simmering LaKeith Stanfield of “Knives Out!” and “Sorry to Bother You,” is arm-twisted into joining the Panthers in the late ’60s, ordered to make himself useful to the Party and ingratiate himself to Hampton.

“The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same,” Agent Mitchell purrs. Maybe O’Neal buys it, but it’s not like he had a choice. “Find out what they need,” he’s ordered.

“A car,” is his answer, so the Bureau gives him a Buick Wildcat. But as Bill, who has a reputation on the streets and fear of that catching up with him, tells them after the first tests Panther security puts him through, “They ain’t no terrorists. They’re terrorizing ME.”

“Judas and the Black Messiah” follows the two on their separate but destined-to-collide trajectories, Hampton organizing, drawing crowds and falling for a fan (Dominique Fishback), O’Neal trying to avoid discovery, to get paid for his tips and information, maybe even hoping to steer the Party clear of trouble with the Feds and the racist-by-right Chicago PD.

King stages tense meetings set up by Hampton and assorted groups which he wanted to ally with, or at least keep clear of Panther political activities. Kaluuya makes Hampton human by letting him show little flashes of nerves that the 20-21 year-old hides under swagger and “million dollar words,” and by letting him look like a man of his time.

No, almost nobody hit the gym back then — cops, Panthers or car thieves.

Stanfield plays O’Neal as a nervous opportunist whose constant side-eyes let us see his terror of being found out. He’s shifty and, at first, willing to follow orders. But he starts to question directives even if his middle man (Plemons’ Mitchell) dares not act on any flash of conscience.

King paints even the more dubious Panthers in a heroic light, which makes the explosions of violence — harassing, threatening and murdering cops met with counter-intimidation and firefights — more jarring. It’s hard to believe this really went on, with compliant news organizations sticking with the official law enforcement “version” of every flashpoint, arrest and shootout.

Event of the past year lend even more credence to the film’s point of view, that rhetoric was hurled at above-the-law police and Feds until it was obvious that wasn’t slowing town the targeting, arrests and worse.

If there’s a fault to the direction and screenplay, it’s the film’s frittering away too many suspenseful “Will they figure O’Neal out?” and “Will he cross the Feds and aide the Party?” moments, “leaving money on the table” as poker players put it. This is a good film that thanks to the impressive cast, flirts with greatness.

But in a banner year for African American representation in front of and behind the camera, King looks like a filmmaker who will get more trips to the plate, more chances to touch’em all. Stanfield is already a rising star and in-demand talent.

And after his Messianic turn here, Kaluuya’s star is in the ascent and his phone — if there’s any justice in Hollywood — has to be ringing off the hook. He lets us see what his contemporaries saw in Hampton, and he makes us wonder just who he might have become.

MPAA Rating: R for violence and pervasive language 

Cast: Laeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback and Martin Sheen.

Credits: Directed by Shaka King, script by Will Berson and Shaka King. A Warner Brothers/HBO Max release.

Running time: 2:05

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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