The peculiarity of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the new film about the betrayal that led to the murder of the Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, in 1969, is that (as has often been said of “Paradise Lost”) the Devil gets the best lines. The movie, directed by Shaka King (who co-wrote the script with Will Berson), doesn’t suggest that there’s any allure in betrayal; it simply makes the betrayer’s story more interesting, and thus falls prey to a dramatic mechanism that’s been more or less a constant throughout film history. (“Judas and the Black Messiah” is streaming on HBO Max.)
The betrayer is Bill O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), a Chicago car thief who, in 1968, became an F.B.I. informant. The betrayed is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a prominent member of the Illinois Black Panther Party who rose to become its chairman. The director of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), a fanatical racist and anti-Communist who voices fear that Hampton would become what the movie’s title calls him, ultimately targets him for assassination, which was carried out, on December 4, 1969, by the Chicago police, on the basis of information provided by O’Neal—who had not only spied on Hampton but infiltrated the Party and become an official within it.
O’Neal’s infiltration is, despite its political implications, a classic and ordinary crime story that gains its energy from the details of his manipulations, and from the psychological and practical tightrope that he is forced to walk in order to pull it off. Hampton’s story, by contrast, is intrinsically extraordinary, because he is marked, from the start, as an inspired personality, a genius of politics, a visionary. Hampton, who was only twenty at the start of the action (he died at twenty-one), is first seen addressing a meeting of Black college students, where, in response to a series of reforms offered by the school’s administration, he delivers an impassioned speech in which he denounces the reforms, calls for revolution, exhorts the audience to get guns with which to liberate themselves, and invites them to the Black Panther Party’s headquarters.
A supremely gifted orator, Hampton is also presented as a master strategist who works to develop a vast coalition to expand the Party’s power. He takes significant risks to reach out to the Crowns, a Black gang; the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican organization; and the Young Patriots, a group of white leftist Southerners in Chicago. (The latter group, which uses the Confederate flag as its emblem, is presented as the most surprising and uneasy of allies.) It’s representative of “Judas and the Black Messiah” that, in charting this coalition-building, it emphasizes the big event, the oratorical drama, and the grand public affirmations of unity before gathered crowds as the crux of Hampton’s political work, rather than the behind-the-scenes organization and negotiation that goes into forging such alliances.
It’s tempting to describe the movie’s depiction of Hampton as hagiographical, but that’s not intrinsically negative—Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” are great movies of hagiography. Rather, it’s a matter of finding a cinematic mode that is as exalted as such a character, and, above all, of showcasing a performance that’s similarly possessed—and which conveys a blend of reason and inspiration, passion and spontaneity, preternatural talent and prodigious energy. Kaluuya is one of the great actors of the time, but in “Judas and the Black Messiah” his performance comes across as calculated, assembled—even if it is also thrillingly committed. As I watched the movie, I found myself wishing that the role had been cast with a younger actor whose powers are just being discovered; I thought of young actors like Helena Howard and Jason Schwartzman, who débuted in starring roles of complexity and fury, dialectical intensity and intellectual fervor. In other words, “Judas and the Black Messiah” needed a coup of casting in order to find a performance that’s up to the character of Hampton. Kaluuya’s seems, instead, to render the extraordinary more ordinary, to indicate and assert Hampton’s unique, historic character rather than embodying it