Myth-making aside, Judas and the Black Messiah is a sharply etched political thriller about tangled loyalties.
‘Badge is scarier than a gun,” reasons a key character in the Black Panther drama Judas and the Black Messiah. It’s a line that is designed to make the activists of 2021 pump their fists in solidarity, but it also fits perfectly into the plot of the movie, which amounts to a politically pointed rethink of all those movies about snitches infiltrating the Mafia.
The difference here is that the filmmakers venerate the gang in this movie (playing on HBO Max), so there’s a lot of silly propaganda about the intentions of the Black Panthers, who are depicted as something like the militant wing of Meals on Wheels. Still, I enjoyed the film’s taut, suspenseful visual style and its cagey plot, which is like a black version of The Departed.
The talented writer-director, Shaka King, who has only one previous directorial credit (a stoner comedy called Newlyweeds), begins this one with a disclaimer that the film is “inspired by true events,” which is a Hollywood euphemism for “we made up a lot of stuff.” Still, the broad outlines are true: A phony Black Panther named Bill O’Neal was secretly relaying information to an FBI handler (Jesse Plemons) about one of the bureau’s prime bugbears, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton (played gloweringly by Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out).
LaKeith Stanfield, a versatile young actor who never fails to impress (and also appeared in Get Out), turns in a brilliant performance as the rat, Bill, who in his meetings with the FBI looks haunted and guilt-torn, just as when he’s among Black Panthers he shifts between fright and bravado. We meet him in an expertly crafted scene at a barroom in which the director creates a long, fluid extended take to create breathless anticipation (which is the correct use of the tool, more often trotted out these days merely as a showy gimmick).
Plemons is nearly as good as Stanfield in playing nuance: His Roy Mitchell, Bill’s pudgy FBI handler, can’t quite be classified as either a careless racist or a decent man grappling with his conscience. Plemons plays the internal struggle of this man brilliantly when he learns the reality behind a story Bill brought him about a Black Panther who tortured and murdered an informant: The truth is that the Panther was himself an FBI mole, and the “informant” was a scapegoat. Roy asks for clarification from his boss: We have a murderer working for us, and we’re not going to arrest him? No, he is told, the man is much more useful when allowed to visit various Black Panther sites, where his status as a “fugitive” can be used to obtain search warrants. The twisted logic of the spy game here is like John Le Carré goes to Chicago. To Bill, Roy asserts that the Panthers are the equivalent of the KKK: “The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same. Their aim is to sow hatred and inspire terror. . . . You can’t cheat your way to equality and you certainly can’t shoot your way to it.”
Most of the intended audience will scoff at all of that, but later in the movie, Fred Hampton proves Roy’s point for him. He gives a long, fire-breathing speech about the necessity of killing all cops (“Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction . . . kill ’em all, get complete satisfaction”) and essentially tells anyone that has qualms that he is a coward: “If you say, ‘I’m too young to die,’ then you’re dead already.’” Yet when Fred is presented with enough explosives to blow up City Hall, he backs down: “I didn’t mean it like that,” he says. So all of the violent rhetoric was just rhetoric.
The Black Panthers did indeed kill a few cops, but not in any systematic attack. Theirs was America’s first cosplay uprising — Leninism Lite, a style revolution. Had he lived until the Eighties, Hampton would have been happy to become a Democratic politician or a professor or a talk-show host, demanding the reordering of society but settling for an upward nudge in welfare spending. Or he might have railed against capitalism before breaking for a Puppy Chow commercial. Kaluuya is too stern to grasp these contradictions, Hampton being the secular saint of his movement, but you can see them in the film if you’re paying attention: There’s no reconciling the meliorist urge with revolutionary rage. If you’re giving the people health clinics and free meals, aren’t you just making them content to live in the system that should infuriate them? One minute, Hampton is dishing out oatmeal to kids, the next he’s asserting that “reform [means] teaching the slaves how to be better slaves.” When he has his own words thrown back at him — “I’m ready to die for the people; how about you?” — he proves no more willing to die for his cause than most of us.
A more cynical film might have noted that as wrong as Hampton is in one direction, J. Edgar Hoover is in the other. Hoover, looming over all the wickedness like Al Capone in The Untouchables, is the weak link of the movie — gaaaah, is that really Martin Sheen? So the credits tell me. I hope that it’s some kind of Plaster of Paris makeup, and not plastic surgery or age, that has turned his face into a lumpy mess. Sheen, a famous progressive, is not at his best when he’s lampooning a historical figure he despises. His Hoover spends the movie fulminating about race war (prodding the perplexed Roy to think about his eight-month-old daughter someday being swept up in the embrace of a “negro”) and eventually ordering up a hit on Hampton. The real Hoover, and the real story of Hampton, are hair-raising enough. Even when your story claims only to be “inspired by true events,” you’re better off going with complexity rather than caricature.