The Man With the Car
Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming on HBOMax
Just imagine it. A few years after the horrors of World War II, you’re born. Living in the suburbs of Chicago, radio and television tell you — endlessly — that you live in the greatest country in the world. A bastion of freedom and justice. A place where, by virtue of hard work and cleverness, you can become anything you can imagine.
Initially, you want to be a centerfielder for the Yankees. Life has other plans, and you find yourself cooking breakfasts for other kids in your neighborhood. You think you have to. Hell, who else will? As you get older, you become more and more aware of a dividing line in your country. For certain kinds of people, those with white skin, a version of that American Dream exists. For those with darker skin like you, you notice that the greatest country in the world spends an awful lot of time trying to keep you down, limit you, even kill you.
That was Fred Hampton’s life, and in a just country, he should never have been scared. A person with his intelligence and skill in bringing together wildly different people should have been an innovative business leader or a legislative champion in the Senate. Unfortunately, he was born Black in the United States of America, a place that does a piss-poor job of living up to its ideals where people of color are concerned.
The world wouldn’t change itself; it never does. Hampton began as a youth organizer for the NAACP, then discovered the Black Panther Party. He was attracted to the idea of Black self-determination and the idea that a degree of socialism* would create justice where capitalism failed. A person like that had to be struck down to maintain the status quo, and the new film Judas and the Black Messiah examines who that person was and who his betrayer was.
As scams go, it’s a good one, and here’s how it works. Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) finds the car he wants, preferably one parked in front of a bar. He’ll stroll in and flash his fake FBI badge because he knows a badge confers far more power than a gun ever could. The owner of the car hands over the keys and Bill departs. It’s a good scam until literally everything goes wrong and Bill finds himself under arrest.
That’s when things get interesting for him. Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) of the FBI has an offer. On the one hand, he can go to prison for several years. On the other, Bill can become Mitchell’s informant. His job is to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and get close to its chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
O’Neal goes to Panther meetings, and, almost against his will, he’s intrigued by what he sees. He watches as Hampton transforms his childhood breakfast plan into something that benefits the community. He watches Hampton negotiate a truce with street gangs, fall in love with fellow member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), and get thrown in jail over $71 worth of ice cream.
The pressure builds when O’Neal discovers that there may be another informant posing as a Panther, and after the release of Hampton from jail, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) orders him “neutralized.” Both the feds and the Panthers squeeze him, and he’s not sure if he should do what’s right for the community or what’s right for himself.
At the end of the day, Judas and the Black Messiah is a “undercover guy” movie. Now, I’m a deep admirer of The Departed, and it’s not just because I’m a Scorsese superfan. The film dives deep into the headspaces of a cop and a crook who have gone undercover in each other’s organizations. It shows the stress, the temptations, and the objectives and costs of their respective missions. I mention that because, putting aside a few excellent performances and one incandescent performance, Judas and the Black Messiah is a good film that falters when compared to better works such as The Departed or BlackKklansman.
Director Shaka King does strong work in immersing us into a vibrant political movement in the 1960s. We can feel the energy of the Panther’s victories, particularly in the scenes portraying Fred Hampton’s speeches. The film moves along fairly briskly, and as it turns its attention to Hampton’s persecution by the FBI, the energy changes, becoming jangly and paranoid. I also appreciated both the realism in King’s scenes of violence and the acceptance some of the characters have that their legacies will only ever be viewed as violent.
King, along with Will Berson, wrote the screenplay, and that’s where the largest flaws lie. I liked that attention was paid toward the real message of the Panthers, and I thought the romance between Hampton and Deborah was sweet and humanizing. The problem is, the script spends a great deal of time with Hampton’s point of view, yet very little of Bill O’Neal’s. It was clear that his character was terrified of being found out. Did he ever find himself strongly identifying with the Panthers or disagreeing with their approaches? Was he just a guy who wanted to get paid and stay out of jail? The scenes with O’Neal and Special Agent Mitchell should also be electric or maddening, but there’s not enough substance to their relationship for the actors to sink their teeth into.
It’s not for lack of trying. Lakeith Stanfield has become one of those actors, the ones that elevate a film simply by being in it. We know he can do cuckoo banana pants comedy in Sorry to Bother You and play a quiet cop in Knives Out. Despite an underwritten part as the twitchy informant O’Neal, Stanfield gives it his all. He makes sure we know how he feels, even if the script doesn’t know. Speaking of underwritten, despite not having a substantial role, I liked Jesse Plemons as Mitchell. He feels like a middle management guy, one who doesn’t have the fiery hatred of the Panthers that grips J. Edgar Hoover.** Dominique Fishback has the unenviable girlfriend role we’ve seen a million times before. She steps up and gives the part intelligence, wit, and a sense of tragedy.
The showstopper performance, as you’ve likely guessed, is Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. It’s one of those turns where he’s pumping out charisma by the truckload, and in the scenes where he’s giving speeches, you instantly understand why people followed him. More interesting are the scenes where he’s parleying with a Chicago gang and building an alliance through logic and compassion, rather than machismo. Kaluuya’s Fred is an interesting guy, and he makes sure to show us all the facets of his character.
Judas and the Black Messiah easily does justice to the legacy of Fred Hampton. If only the same laser focus had been brought to bear on the struggles of Bill O’Neal, we could have had something great. Instead, we simply have a good film, and it’s one I can see myself returning to.
*A term that a shocking amount of people seem to misunderstand.
**It bears mentioning that the makeup Martin Sheen is saddled with makes him look like old cheese.