In the summer of 1967, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issued the first in a series of memos outlining how the bureau would deal with what it deemed “black nationalist hate groups.” The memos, sent to the FBI offices participating in Cointelpro, the bureau’s covert (and illegal) counterintelligence program, are as infuriating and terrifying as they are outlandish. They claimed that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were “violence-prone.” They declared that the FBI must prevent “a true black revolution” and likened a potential coalition of domestic Black political groups to Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. They even posited that Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah Muhammad were peers, as if there were no substantial differences in their outlooks and tactics. The memos were more a racist projection than a work of intelligence.
Judas and the Black Messiah takes its title from these memos, in which Hoover warns of a “messiah who could unify, and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.” The film, directed by Shaka King, focuses on the FBI infiltration of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Plotted like a thriller, the biopic uses the operation to explore the Black Power era and condemn the government apparatus that snuffed it out.
The titular messiah is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the charismatic chairman of the chapter, who was the group’s spokesperson and one of its key organizers until his assassination by Chicago police working with the FBI. Judas is William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), an informant who provided the information that led to Hampton’s death. The juxtaposition of these opposing visions of Blackness—radicalism versus complicity—powers the film, staging Hampton’s death and O’Neal’s deceit as a showdown between a Black revolutionary and a Black saboteur. When the filmmaker Terence Nance was shown an early cut of the film, he reportedly responded by saying, “It kind of makes you question, which ancestor are you?”
The stark binary of savior and traitor has mixed results. In some ways, it makes the story juicier and more propulsive. King structures the story as a gritty thriller, introducing us to O’Neal on the night he stages a carjacking and following him as he’s recruited by the FBI, welcomed by the Panthers, and later swept up by the consequences of his actions. Stanfield’s performance is deliciously squirrelly, swinging between comedy, bluster, and confusion. He imbues O’Neal with an intense longing, treating the mole’s dueling allegiances like unrequited loves. Though the FBI uses O’Neal’s criminal record as a cudgel, the scenes where he interacts with his handler (Jesse Plemons), mostly in a swanky restaurant, feel like illicit rendezvous. And when O’Neal is with Hampton, he’s conspicuously in awe of the man’s words.
Hampton, whom Kaluuya brings to life with fiery confidence, leads a steadier life—but he too flirts with major change. As he educates new recruits, gives speeches, and traverses Chicago to form alliances with other political groups like the Young Lords and the Young Patriots Organization, he’s pursued by Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who is drawn to the Panthers after one of his outreach efforts. In one especially magical scene, they bond over a Malcolm X speech playing on vinyl, quoting the recording to each other with wide, conspiratorial grins. As they grow closer, Johnson questions the constant mentions of death and violence in Hampton’s speeches. Her conviction that he choose life over martyrdom is directed at the audience as well as Hampton. These competing threads of subterfuge, tenderness, and creative license help Judas and the Black Messiah escape the usual staidness of biopics, which tend to exalt historical figures and traffic in hagiography rather than storytelling.
But the film is curiously circumspect about the experience of Black Power. In its fixation on the FBI’s efforts to ensnare Hampton, it presents the Panthers more as a target than a party, never quite inhabiting their perspective. Beyond Hampton’s arresting lectures and prescient coalition-building, scant attention is paid to the inner workings of the Chicago chapter or the national organization. Allusions to Panthers in exile (Eldridge Cleaver), incarcerated leaders (Huey P. Newton), and dead comrades (Bunchy Carter) are so fleeting they feel like minor details.
And then there’s the film’s uneven interest in the experiences of the members who flank Hampton as he moves about the city. While one real-life Panther, Jake Winters, is mourned in a touching conversation between Hampton and Winters’s mother after he is killed in a police shootout, another Panther, the fictional Judy Harmon, is never mentioned again after surviving another intense gun battle with Chicago police. Meanwhile, a leader of the Illinois chapter, Bobby Rush, appears throughout the movie but says little. At one point, as Hampton contemplates his return to prison, he asks, “Is the party about me or is it about the people?” The film tacitly chooses Hampton.
Historical dramas, by their nature, are filled with omissions. But it’s striking that the film has so little interest in Black Power as a collective experience—how it empowered groups and communities that were otherwise ignored, how it competed with other political ideologies, how it was pursued differently by the Panthers’ many contemporaries, some of whom the Panthers disparaged. The film rejects the notion of Hampton as a messiah, but it declines to advance or explore another framework.
Betrayal is a constant theme in films about the Panthers and other Black militants, from Mario Van Peebles’s ham-fisted Panther to Tanya Hamilton’s haunted Night Catches Us to Spike Lee’s clumsy BlacKkKlansman, which begins with the infiltration by law enforcement of a Black radical group. Even the Afrofuturist superhero fantasy Black Panther is fueled by this theme: The rakish villain Erik Killmonger is motivated by the death of his father, who was killed for betraying the Wakandan state. While there’s clearly precedent for this motif—the informants the FBI hired to infiltrate the Panthers were largely Black—Judas and the Black Messiah highlights how reductive the theme can be. In focusing on O’Neal’s betrayal, the film narrows the FBI’s gross abuse of power into a character study.
For all of the movie’s nods to the fullness of the Chicago Panthers, it’s O’Neal who drives the narrative, tonally and thematically. Alongside the standard beats of an undercover-cop story—planting evidence, wearing a wire, nearly being outed—sequences from O’Neal’s real-life appearance in the civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize are reenacted and used as interludes throughout. Shot with stark, bright lighting that contrasts with the rich, dark hues of the rest of the film, these moments emphasize O’Neal’s duplicity, reminding us that he will survive all the chaos he’s helping to foment. This all makes for gripping psychodrama and riveting plotting, but too often it places O’Neal alone in the center of the turmoil.
The film nods at the other Panthers’ struggles, and flashes of personality emerge in asides and deviations from the plot, from one Panther antagonizing a cop by reading Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” to another heroically confronting two officers conducting an unwarranted pat-down of some Black men. But only O’Neal and Hampton feel whole. The rest of the Panthers—with the exception of Johnson, who visibly hardens over the course of the film thanks to sterling acting by Fishback—seem like props rather than characters. They’re often filmed surrounding Hampton rather than interacting with him, as though they were his vassals, not his comrades.
In an interview, King argued that O’Neal’s waffling makes for a more compelling story. “Fred Hampton came into this world fully realized,” he said. “He knew what he was doing at a very young age. Whereas William O’Neal is in a conflict; he’s confused. And that’s always going to make for a more interesting protagonist.” But while the tension and intrigue of O’Neal’s changing loyalties propel the story, the singularity of his experience grows contrived and narrows the political scope of the narrative being told. Centering on O’Neal, the film overvalues the weight of his particular betrayal and ignores the larger story of the Panthers and the structures that were devoted to their failure.
The film’s main mode is restraint, a style that occasionally suits its depiction of the government’s leering gaze. A movie about the Black Panthers would seemingly lend itself to spectacle and provocation, but King insists on vérité and immersion. Every galvanizing Hampton speech is a spatial experience as well as a rhetorical one, the camera roving the rooms and crowds the chairman addresses. As he deplores fascism and advocates for community power, we see faces scrunching and lighting up and grimacing, bodies moving, fists raised. Hampton was a phenomenal public speaker, so this is to be expected. But King gets something else too: In the scene in which Hampton returns to Chicago from prison and gives a riveting homecoming speech, the editing highlights the feedback between speaker and audience. Switching between tableaux and profiles, the room shrinks and expands in cadence with Hampton’s inflections, accenting the communal and individual impacts of his words. The sequence feels designed to insist that Hampton was not the center of gravity, not the messiah.
Violence, too, is used cautiously. When cops assault the Panther headquarters, the shootout is punctuated by reaction shots from a crowd of enraged onlookers. King clearly casts the cops as encroachers but doesn’t revel in the Panthers’ holding their ground, instead emphasizing the one-sidedness of the exchange. When the Panthers give up and are brutalized while being handcuffed, the camera cuts away from the blows and lingers on the concerned faces of the witnesses. Compared with a film like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, in which police brutality is gratuitously at its center, King makes clear that the purpose of the scene is state power rather than Black affliction. The move tacitly anticipates a viewer already inundated with images of Black death.
The movie’s climax, a nighttime police raid that leaves Hampton and another Panther dead, is just as controlled. There’s no dwelling on the beliefs of the perpetrators, who are obscured in darkness as they sweep through Hampton’s apartment, guns blazing. There’s no lingering on the bullet holes that pock the walls. The victims, who have every reason to be outraged, don’t cry. We don’t even see Hampton die; instead, we see Johnson experience his death, Fishback’s face a stoic visage as gunfire flashes behind her. The film’s even keel can render it inert, especially when it depicts the FBI, which King resists embellishing despite the outrageous nature of Cointelpro. But in moments like this, King’s austerity is pure clarity. Fred Hampton was assassinated by his government.