PLOT In the 1960s, an FBI informant gets close to Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton.
CAST Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
RATED R (language and violence)
WHERE In theaters and streaming on HBO Max
BOTTOM LINE A compelling story of political martyrdom.
In the late 1960s, few things shook up white America like the Black Panthers. A national network of armed Black activists who combined benevolent social programs with incendiary rhetoric, they presented themselves as the nightmare alternative to Martin Luther King’s nonviolent dreams. No surprise, then, that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover tried to tamp down any Black leader who might become — in his words — a "messiah."
That term is the inspiration for Shaka King’s impassioned directorial debut, "Judas and the Black Messiah," written by King with three others. It’s the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the charismatic chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers, who in 1969 was shot and killed in his bed by a squad of FBI officers. The story’s Judas is Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty criminal turned informant who infiltrated the Panthers and provided information that helped facilitate Hampton’s killing. It’s an infuriating tale about what a system will to do to maintain power, and what happens to those who stand — or get caught — in the way.
It’s also a vehicle for Kaluuya, the breakout star of "Get Out," to play a historical figure. Hampton was known as forceful speaker and a diplomatic wizard; he actually managed to join forces with a Puerto Rican gang and a band of Confederate flag-waving whites. Kaluuya plays him with a sense of modesty and a touching shyness around fellow Panther Deborah Johnson, who became his wife and is today known as Akua Njeri (Dominique Fishback).
A more complicated figure emerges in Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), the upstanding G-man ordered by Hoover (a jowly Martin Sheen) to bring down the Panthers. After collaring O’Neal for a stolen car, Mitchell presses him into service by asserting, "The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same." He really means it: Just a few years earlier, Mitchell helped solve the murders of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County that became the basis for "Mississippi Burning." Plemons plays him as a good guy, a true believer in the things he’s been taught to believe.
The film’s best performance, though, comes from Stanfield as O’Neal, a squirrelly hoodlum with a gift for fast talk and zero interest in politics. Slender, with soulful eyes that grow sadder as the film goes on, Stanfield ("Sorry to Bother You") makes us pity this traitor even as we despise him for his role in history. The film's woeful postscript — which involves a stunning clip of the real O’Neal — will linger with you for a long while.