JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is one of this year’s best picture nominees (plus best original screenplay, best cinematography, best original song, and its two title characters were confusingly both nominated for best supporting actor). It’s from director Shaka King (NEWLYWEEDS) and it’s about the true story of an informant pressured by the FBI to go undercover in the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, an operation that culminated in police murdering Fred Hampton in his bed with two shots to the back of his head. (And getting away with it, obviously.)
The movie opens with a familiar scenario: an officer interrupting a group of Black men to hassle them. They’re in a bar, at a pool table, he makes them empty their pockets, asks about the car out front, claims it was stolen. They’re outraged but obviously used to this shit, then they notice his badge says FBI so why is he asking about a car, and he’s kind of hiding his face and he looks really young…
As he’s about to drive away using their keys they realize it’s a scam. He’s not an FBI agent, but a clever and/or weird car thief named William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, THE PURGE: ANARCHY). But after he’s caught with the car a real FBI agent named Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, BATTLESHIP) comes after him. He obviously doesn’t really give a shit that some kid impersonated a federal officer, but he knows he can threaten jail time to force him to do undercover work. So like Ron Stallworth at the beginning of BLACKKKLANSMAN, but under duress, O’Neal is sent to spy on black militants, specifically Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN), the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Kaluuya doesn’t look much like Hampton at all, but does a great interpretation of his distinct Chicago accent and speech patterns, and especially captures the intensity and swagger that helped make him such a powerful and persuasive force at the ridiculously young age of 21. Like many I first knew Kaluuya from GET OUT, and obviously he was good in that, but it wasn’t until his cold-blooded villain in WIDOWS that I realized what a range he has. His Hampton uses a related type of charisma and aura of danger, but for good instead of evil.
There’s a really interesting scene where Hampton speaks to a college activist group, and the kids introducing him make announcements about some recent concessions they’ve gotten from the school, including renaming it after Malcolm X. Hampton comes out like a rock star, says he doesn’t need a microphone, and basically dismisses the students as suckers for accepting those things as victories instead of meaningless window dressing to placate them. It’s a very familiar dynamic if you’ve ever been to left wing protests: the more-radical-than-thou just-tellin-it-like-it-is person who shits on the whole idea of the event and the motives of those involved, and if they say it right they’ll, if not get the crowd on their side, at least have a sizable cheering section. Often they’re at least kind of right, but they’re dividing and insulting the group before anyone even gets anywhere, and to me it seems counterproductive.
So I love that in this scene a student, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, THE HATE U GIVE), approaches him afterwards and, after complimenting his speech, tells him why she thinks he could choose his words better. He doesn’t seem to take her point, but when she later volunteers for the Panthers she uses her skills as a poet to help with his speeches, and then falls in love with him. A relationship partly sparked by listening to a record of Malcolm X speeches together.
With O’Neal as their driver (in a nice car he gets the FBI to buy him, and claims to have stolen), Hampton and his crew boldly confront gangs and other neighborhood groups, convincing the Young Lords (a Puerto Rican gang turned revolutionaries) and the Young Patriots Organization (leftists helping impoverished migrants from Applachia, but they come across as rednecks in the movie) to unite for rallies and a free breakfast for children program. O’Neal meets with Mitchell, but doesn’t have anything juicy to report about the Panthers until they provide shelter for a member from another chapter (Terayle Hill, SUPERFLY, Step Up: High Water, Cobra Kai) who’s a fugitive. Turns out the feds already know because that guy’s an informant too, going from chapter to chapter to give the feds an excuse to raid them.
We see in a few scenes that the pressure to stop Hampton before he becomes “a black messiah” comes from the top, Martin Sheen (SPAWN) as a more physically and morally repugnant J. Edgar Hoover than we saw in Clint’s movie. (Other real people portrayed by Martin Sheen: Pretty Boy Floyd, RFK, JFK, John Dean, Robert E. Lee, John Dillinger, Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Oral Roberts, and of course Colonel Gilbert Milfoil in PROJECT: ALF.)
So it’s a biopic of Hampton, with this love story between equally committed but in some ways philosophically opposed people, and an emphasis on how his outsized charisma and unorthodox ideas got through to people. I don’t think it’s a full endorsement of every choice the Panthers made – it definitely gives the impression that some were less disciplined than others, and that their use of guns for legal, Constitutionally-protected-if-they-were-white self defense made everything more dangerous (though mainly just because it gave the government and police more excuses to murder them).
When the Panthers are talking about how to get Hampton out of the country to avoid an unjust prison term and he tells them to forget about that and work on the neighborhood medical center they’re trying to open, you can see why garbage people like Hoover wanted to get rid of him. And the movie is also, of course, an expose of the racist and corrupt system that fears the influence of such leaders and will casually break any law and moral code to stop them.
But I think as the title implies this is primarily a study of the titular “Judas,” the person who would choose self-preservation over justice, and side with that system even though he’s a victim of it. The sellout, the traitor, the rat who knows those guys aren’t terrorists but tries to get them to blow up an armory to steal guns, even offers them C-4. (That really happened, though it’s not known if he was really wearing a wire or not.)
I think that’s part of what makes it so compelling: it uses the popular story format of the undercover cop movie in a way that comments on the system. We’ve all seen many undercover stories, and this follows all the usual procedures: we see how he prepares for the role, how he introduces himself, the close calls where someone is suspicious and almost calls him out but he wins them over. And as always the person he’s after and some of the people around him are very likable, and form a bond with him, and are good to him. As always, he has gotten deep into the role, and into the relationships, and he’s feeling tremendous guilt about the betrayal, so it’s a moment of great pain when he’s revealed as a rat.
But normally it’s DONNIE BRASCO, or even RESERVOIR DOGS or POINT BREAK or THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS – it’s a personal relationship that has been betrayed, a personal code. It’s about friendship, brotherhood, maybe honor, maybe even just Stockholm Syndrome. The guilt is about the dishonesty, but there’s no question that Mr. White shouldn’t have been stealing jewels, Dom shouldn’t have been hijacking shipments of DVD players, Bodhi shouldn’t have been robbing banks, the mafia shouldn’t have been being the mafia. In this case, the Black Panthers are the fucking good guys. What they’re doing is right, what the police and FBI are doing is wrong. When O’Neal got in too deep he didn’t pistol whip a guy or something, he helped rebuild a community center that got fire bombed by the cops and worked hard to serve the neighborhood.
It’s a movie going undercover in an undercover movie, or an undercover story that works in reverse. Not because of any reversal made in the story, but because the system itself is backwards. The fact is, in this case the FBI are the villains and the investigation itself is the crime.
Unlike many true story movies that get nominated for Oscars, it doesn’t throw the system a bone to keep us feeling comfortably optimistic. In fact, it uses our familiarity with such tropes against us. It knows we like that Jesse Plemons as an actor. He’s good at playing bastards but also he can be a nice guy. He seems like a bastard here, pushing O’Neal to do this dishonorable thing, dangling money in front of him as a temptation. But sometimes it seems like they’re personally loyal to each other. O’Neal at least wants to believe that Mitchell, who explains that he’s busted the Klan before and this is part of the same work, is trying to do the right thing. And indeed he seems shocked when he learns that this thing O’Neal brought him about another Panther torturing and killing an informant is in fact coming from someone who is an informant himself, and his colleagues are using it to justify raids. It seems to shake his understanding of what’s going on. The thing he thought proved the Panthers were evil is in fact just proof that his own agency is crooked.
So this is it! This is when the Good Cop steps up. He’s gonna be honorable and brave and call out these Bad Apples, or at the very least refuse to be a part of what they’re doing. Right? That’s what happens in movies. But this is a movie that knows that that sort of heroism is, at the very least, not a given in this world. So, nope. Mitchell figures out a way to accept it and he goes along with it. He stays on the team. As people do.
King also uses that familiar tactic of ending with interview footage of the real person depicted in the movie, in this case from the series Eyes on the Prize. The real O’Neal seems very defensive, but claims that he “was part of the struggle” and “didn’t sit on the sidelines,” which doesn’t seem to jibe with the portrayal in the movie, and made me curious to find out more. He continued being an FBI informant, and seems to have done at least one positive thing in 1973 when he testified against a Chicago police sergeant who’d murdered two drug dealers. But before the Eyes on the Prize interview aired something caused him to commit suicide by running onto an expressway.
I watched the full hour of raw footage from the interview via the University of Washington on Vimeo (below). When asked if he felt remorse after Hampton’s death, O’Neal said, “I didn’t feel like I had done anything. I didn’t walk in there with guns, I didn’t shoot him. FBI didn’t do it.” But after explaining that “I felt betrayed, I felt like I was expendable” because had he decided to sleep over that night “I probably would’ve been a victim,” he said, “I felt like perhaps I was on the wrong side. Yeah – yeah I had my misgivings.”
Later he confirmed that he considered Hampton to have been murdered by the Chicago Police Department, and that he didn’t have anything bad to say about him. “We tried to develop negative information to discredit him just like we did anyone else. We being the FBI. I tried to come up with signs of him doing drugs or, or something, and, uh, never could. He was clean. He was dedicated.”
Whenever I see a true story movie like this I do a little reading about how it really went down. This is one where I didn’t come across very much that made the movie seem exaggerated. In O’Neal’s interviews about being recruited he just said he stole a car and went on a joyride, so I thought the fake FBI badge was a thematic addition showing how you can do whatever you want if you have the power of that institution at your back. But then I read that during his research King was told the story that way by multiple people. Another speculative part is the drugging – reportedly the autopsy found huge amounts of Fentanyl in Hampton’s system, explaining why no one could wake him up during the raid. In the interview linked above, O’Neal insists that Hampton never used drugs but also plays dumb about the possibility someone dosed him. King and others are convinced O’Neal did it.
It was later proven that O’Neal provided the floor plan to the apartment, establishing the FBI’s involvement in the raid. And six days after it went down the real J. Edgar Hoover sent the real Roy Mitchell a $200 bonus “for your outstanding services in a matter of considerable interest to the FBI in the racial field” related to “aggressiveness and skill in handling a valuable source.” Interesting, isn’t it, that a supposed attempt to serve a warrant that ended in two deaths was considered a great success. (Cue C+C Music Factory’s “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm.”)
As King points out, his movie is an attempt at a truthful account of events on which much of the official historical record is supplied by institutions known to have been untruthful at the time. Police flagrantly lied both under oath and in press conferences, painting their strike against a private residence as a “shootout” – a word repeated in fellow best picture nominee THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (in which Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Hampton). I think it’s safe to say that that’s a misleading description of a raid where police fired 90-99 rounds and the 1 (one) shot fired by their victims was a reflexive one by security man Mark Clark when police killed him. A coroner’s jury in 1970 ruled the assassinations to be justifiable homicide, but in 1982 the City of Chicago, Cook County and the federal government settled a civil lawsuit on behalf of the families and survivors for $1.85 million. That seems to be how these things always go – government entities commit a grave injustice, they lie about it for years, with the press taking them at their word, and the family of the victims have to dedicate a long part of their lives fighting and fighting and fighting just to get a small concession and a little money that could never come close to replacing what they’ve lost.
King is credited as co-writer of JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH along with Will Berson (writer and writer’s assistant on various sitcoms), with a co-story credit also going to Kenneth & Keith Lucas (those identical twin comedians who were in 22 JUMP STREET). The Lucas Brothers and Berson had separately tried to get Hampton biopics off the ground, with King meeting the former while directing a pilot for them and the latter after his version (originally titled THE ASSASSINATION OF CHAIRMAN FRED HAMPTON BY THE CLOSET QUEEN MULATTO EDGAR HOOVER) didn’t take off with F. Gary Gray in talks to direct. Ryan Coogler signed on to produce a few weeks after the release of BLACK PANTHER, and producer Charles D. King (THE LAND, FENCES, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU) put up half of the budget himself, but they still had trouble finding backing.
It worked out though. Along with all the other accolades, I love this moment when an actor goes from “guy I’m always excited about” (like LaKeith Stanfield ever since Atlanta started and I realized he was the same guy from MILES AHEAD and STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) to actual Oscar nominee. Good for him. He doesn’t seem to need a boost in getting interesting roles, but it can’t hurt. (He can still be on Atlanta though, right?) Also I will definitely be looking for King’s upcoming movies and even finding out what NEWLYWEEDS is.
Slate has an informative “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction” piece on the movie.