It’s impossible to tell the entire story of a revolutionary movement in two hours, and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah tries and fails. It discusses the Black Panther Party’s efforts to unite dispossessed people and exact an overthrow of American capitalism and imperialism solely in the broadest terms, while the BPP’s unlikely alliances, including with the Confederate-flag-flying Young Patriots Organization, are depicted only briefly. King is less interested in the BPP’s ascent than in white America’s obsessive need to destroy it, making for a film that too often seems like it’s spending unnecessary time with the same white oppressors BPP Chairman Fred Hampton (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) is trying to separate from.
So while Judas and the Black Messiah jolts to life every time Kaluuya appears onscreen, it intermittently struggles to establish an identity for the BPP that’s separate from the harassment and violence its members were fighting. The approach King and co-writers Will Berson and Kenneth and Keith Lucas take to this narrative doesn’t undermine the cast’s brilliant performances, or the impact of certain poignant moments. But their uneven methodology robs Judas and the Black Messiah of the propulsive energy it could have.
“Inspired by true events” (and often sticking close to historical fact, especially in the film’s devastating final scenes), Judas and the Black Messiah is about two men: BPP Illinois Chapter Chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) and car thief Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). They’re both chameleons, and they’re both ciphers. One is a fiery orator, a principled anti-capitalist, and a coalition-builder intent on enacting a revolution. The other is a small-time criminal, a coward, and the tool of a hostile state. In both personality and ideology, Hampton and O’Neal are at oppositional ends of the spectrum. But they’re united by their inability to escape the white-power structure of the United States.
When O’Neal is picked up for impersonating an FBI agent while trying to steal a car in Chicago in 1968, actual FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) sees a COINTELPRO opportunity. O’Neal’s crimes would add up to more than six years in prison if he were convicted, Mitchell says. So why shouldn’t O’Neal work for him instead, infiltrating the Black Panthers and feeding the FBI as much information as he can collect on Hampton, who FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) sees as one of the greatest threats to national security?
O’Neal doesn’t take much convincing. In no time at all, he’s attending the BPP meetings where Hampton guides his followers toward a vision of America that’s more equitable, inclusive, and just. King stages these meetings in schools, community spaces, and the BPP headquarters that are open to everyone, emphasizing the group’s populist approach. King shows Hampton working at the free breakfast service the BPP provided to thousands of Chicago children. He passes out pamphlets and asks for donations on the street. He speaks at meetings about the teachings of Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara. He is a comrade and a leader both, and the intent here is to build Hampton as a champion of and for Black people — a mantle Kaluuya assumes with ease.
Kaluuya, solid in body and steady in gaze, always seems older than Hampton’s 20 years, and Stanfield similarly never looks 17, as O’Neal was when the FBI enlisted him. On a certain level, those additional years cause a disconnect, dampening the tragic aspect as these youthful lives are manipulated and destroyed. But it would also be unfair to ignore how Kaluuya oozes defensiveness and world-weariness that benefit the character: a slump in his posture that he straightens out with palpable effort before speaking at a BPP recruiting event; a quickness to the punch he lands on an abusive prison guard.
Hampton can be staggeringly self-assured and unrepentantly combative: At one point, he insults the African pride movements at college campuses as appeasement instead of instigation. (“Political power doesn’t flow from the sleeve of a dashiki. Political power flows from the barrel of a gun.”) In one of the film’s best scenes, as he meets with the head of the Chicago Crowns (a fictitious combination of various contemporary activist groups), he says of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., “At least they died for the people. We should be so lucky.” The set of Kaluuya’s stance and the bluntness of his affect are thrillingly good, and the film crackles around him.
But is Judas and the Black Messiah really Hampton’s story? For the most part, although King and the writers sand down some facets of his personality (having him identify as a socialist instead of the avowed Marxist-Leninist he actually said he was; having him walk back statements about killing police officers), they’re unapologetic in their deification. Dominique Fishback shines as the college student who steadily falls for Hampton, and who sees the shy, private side of him that so many don’t. Her performance is achingly vulnerable, and the impact of the film’s crescendo rests on her expressive face.
It’s a shame, then, that various structural elements of Judas and the Black Messiah don’t work as well. The democratic focus of the film’s first half, during which Hampton travels around Chicago and asks other activist groups to join the BPP in the Rainbow Coalition, is abandoned once Hampton goes to prison. His efforts make for strong individual scenes and allow Kaluuya to deliver myriad magnetic speeches, but they feel disconnected from the film’s second hour, and the aims and impact of the Rainbow Coalition are never really explained.
Instead, the film’s back half wastes time on stuff like a horrendously uncomfortable meeting between Mitchell and Hoover that almost attempts to secure our pity for the former, a decision that feels misguided at best. And ultimately, it’s difficult to understand why Judas and the Black Messiah uses O’Neal’s betrayal as its entry point. The film is described as being about the “battle [that] wages for O’Neal’s soul,” but his character is so underwritten that any perceived hesitation or reluctance feels like it’s coming from the audience’s projections rather than radiating outward from O’Neal’s depiction or Stanfield’s performance. Only toward the end of Judas and the Black Messiah, when Lil Rel Howery makes a notable appearance as a character who jettisons O’Neal’s paranoia into Dostoevskian territory, does the film make a case for centering a character who arguably doesn’t deserve any sympathy at all.
That’s not to say that movies should only be about “good” characters; a strict attempt to maintain ideological purity can be a boring way to consume art. But Judas and the Black Messiah fumbles by assuming that the only way to humanize Fred Hampton is to focus on the man who helped kill him, and by then underwriting that character to such a degree that the force of Kaluuya’s performance has to fill the narrative gaps. King has put together a film that honors Hampton as an icon. But by viewing him primarily through the lens of his detractors rather than his champions, he’s guaranteed an uneven execution.
Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming exclusively on HBO Max through March 15, with a broad digital release to follow. It’s also playing in limited theatrical release. Before attending movies in a theater, we recommend reading Polygon’s guide to local safety guidelines during COVID-19.