A century ago, Winston Churchill made the case that “history is written by the victors,” but here in the year 2021, even — and sometimes especially — those crushed beneath the boot of authority have found ways to make their side heard. Every so often, with time, the underdog version of events wins out, putting the lie to the propaganda and spin of those in power.
To cite one example, early Christian martyrs oppressed by the Romans went on to write their own history. With that model in mind, think of director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” as “The Gospel According to the Black Panther Party,” an intense, infuriating and indisputably timely big-screen retelling of the circumstances under which Illinois BPP chapter chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was assassinated by the establishment. Big screens are in limited supply these days, and the pandemic has pressured Warner Bros. to reroute this Oscar contender to the conglomerate’s HBO Max streaming platform, but that may actually serve to broaden the message of a film that sees righteousness in a once radical cause.
That message — beyond the familiar “I am a revolutionary!” chant that 21-year-old activist Hampton used to motivate his followers — dovetails with the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country in response to the ongoing murder of Black men and women by the very institutions sworn to protect and to serve. What happened to Hampton was far more insidious than recent killings, however, in that the Black Panther leader was targeted for elimination by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
At the center of the operation was William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the former Black Panther security captain who sabotaged the movement by serving as an undercover informant for FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Fifty-one years after the fact, a redacted version of Mitchell’s personnel file indicates that the conspiracy, carried out by the Chicago police, traced all the way to FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, lending smarmy conviction to a rare bad-guy role). These revelations corroborate the riveting script’s more speculative aspects, largely based on a candid interview O’Neal gave in the 1987 docu-series “Eyes on the Prize,” a reenactment of which opens the movie.
That testimony sets up a unique perspective on this under-examined fiasco, in which COINTELPRO (a Hoover-sanctioned hit squad acting with unconstitutional impunity) set out to cripple what Hoover deemed dangerous political organizations by any means necessary. Presented here as a crisis of conscience, O’Neal’s experience offers a perverse inversion of Spike Lee’s recent “BlackKklansman,” as King (who co-wrote with Will Berson and comedy duo Kenny and Keith Lucas) plays the believe-it-or-not plot not for comedy but tragedy.
When King shows G-men, their racism and disrespect for civil rights are brazen but all too plausible. According to Plemons’ character, “The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same,” a specious argument the agent uses to convince O’Neal (who’s been arrested for impersonating a federal agent) to infiltrate Hampton’s group. By 1969, as a well-constructed opening montage reminds, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had both been brutally silenced. In major cities, law enforcement harassed Black citizens, and in response, the Panthers swore to police the police.
In Chicago, a charismatic young organizer emerged with a plan: Hampton pushed to unite various factions — not just rival Black groups but also the Young Patriots (Southern white leftists) and the Young Lords (Puerto Ricans) — in what he called the Rainbow Coalition. Rather than fighting among themselves, he strategized, they ought to redirect their anger toward the system. Hampton was a passionate and compelling speaker, whereas Kaluuya (who’s a decade older and less overtly demonstrative) explores a more reserved side of the character at first: de-escalating a tense meeting, rehearsing speeches modeled on Reverend King’s and bashfully flirting with future girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback).
Intimate moments between Fishback and Kaluuya add welcome dimension, humanizing Hampton — who was too easily painted as an agitator by his enemies — as a lover and a fighter. At Hoover’s instruction, authorities find a flimsy excuse to arrest him, while thinking of more “creative” ways to ensure his silence. But after a stint in prison, the wounded Panther emerges more outspoken than ever. It is here, in the film’s explosive second half, that Kaluuya transforms into the Hampton the public knows best, the civil rights “messiah” who could galvanize crowds — part spoken-word poet, part evangelical preacher — in service of a socialist agenda the powers that be were determined to suppress at any cost.
The price worked out to just $300. That’s the proverbial 30 pieces of silver for which O’Neal sold Hampton to the feds, drawing the floor plan of his West Side apartment and drugging him the night of the raid. While the “Judas” label seems fitting, O’Neal later made clear that this wasn’t a “betrayal” in his mind. “I had no allegiance to the Panthers,” the informer would later explain, although the film finds it more dramatic to portray him as conflicted. There’s no other actor today quite like Stanfield, who turns the cool ambivalence he displayed in “Sorry to Bother You” into a chilling kind of moral detachment.
As both the film’s protagonist and an inherently likable actor, Stanfield easily invites our sympathy, even though O’Neal represents the lowest-imaginable life-form: a rat sent by “pigs” to poison a Panther. But he is also a pawn in a plan he couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Together with recent films “MLK/FBI” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” this project exposes the degree to which American law enforcement targeted high-profile Black figures. It does not, however, condone violence.
That’s the exceptional accomplishment of King’s approach, considering that the movie gives audiences every reason to resent a system that shows such disregard for Black life. It allows Hampton’s incendiary words to be heard — including the no-turning-back line “Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction” — while showing the fatal extremism of fallen comrades Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders), Jake Winters (Algee Smith) and Judy Harmon (Dominique Thorne).
In an earlier scene, Hampton and Bobby Rush (Darrell Britt-Gibson) hold class for those three, quoting Chairman Mao on the difference between war and politics: “War is politics with bloodshed, and politics is war without bloodshed.” Would the impeached ex-president agree? Would Hoover? Both instigated violence and got away with it, whereas Hampton was given the death penalty. Following its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, “Judas and the Black Messiah” opens in a climate where tensions between authorities and equality seekers have flared once again. The powerful film puts the current moment into fresh historical context and suggests that ambivalence can its own form of betrayal.