Casting Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover in Judas and the Black Messiah is superbly perverse: a crusading Hollywood liberal—President Bartlet himself—cosplaying as an ultra-conservative power broker. The recent unearthing of documents directly linking Hoover’s FBI to the 1969 police raid in Chicago that resulted in the killing of Fred Hampton and fellow Black Panther Mark Clark backs up the blistering thesis of Shaka King’s thriller, which suggests that the party chairman was targeted less for anything he’d done than for what he might become—political assassination as a pre-emptive measure. Addressing an audience of like-minded law-enforcement professionals in a darkened auditorium, Sheen’s Hoover invokes scripture to contextualize Hampton’s potential impact as a community organizer and ideological lightning rod. The fact that the Messiah is the enemy and the Bureau is in the business of crucifixions in this New Testament analogy doesn’t seem to faze him.
Hoover has been a go-to bogeyman in Hollywood movies for decades now—a scheming, paranoid avatar of the surveillance state. Sheen’s even campier here than he was as the Bible-thumping, apocalypse-now president in The Dead Zone, and his shtick belongs in a lesser movie—maybe one directed by his West Wing pal Aaron Sorkin. It’s tempting and inevitable to compare Judas and the Black Messiah with The Trial of the Chicago 7, which both dramatize the charged political climate of the late 1960s. Slate’s Karen Han writes about how King’s film serves as a corrective to Sorkin’s slick courtroom drama, which places Hampton’s assassination in the background and shamelessly exploits the abuse and humiliation of his fellow Panther Bobby Seale in a scene that’s mostly calibrated to emphasize the guilt, pity, and moral outrage of his white codefendants.
The difference is between a movie made by a filmmaker opportunistically seizing the moment and one who’s committed beyond the duration of award season. The righteous, almost self-parodically Sorkin-esque speech that ends The Trial of the Chicago 7 is testimony to its creator’s artistic narcissism, the equivalent of a writer giving himself a standing ovation. Judas and the Black Messiah is just as accessible and timely as The Trial of the Chicago 7—and hopefully just as viable as an Oscar contender—while being exponentially less self-congratulatory. It’s produced by Ryan Coogler, whose upward industrial trajectory from indies to prestige drama provides one possible template for King: nothing about the director’s 2013 debut Newlyweeds, a romantic comedy about a pair of potheads languishing in Brooklyn, signaled this kind of mainstream ambition and reach. Working on a big, broad historical canvas and in tandem with Steve McQueen’s DP, Sean Bobbitt—a master of roving long takes who previously mapped Chicago’s urban landscape in Widows—King shows he’s got style to burn.
The larger story in Judas and the Black Messiah is about the legacy of the Black Panthers as activists and the way they bumped up against the insidious efficiencies of state violence. It shows how an institutional talking point gets finessed into an action item, tacitly approved on down the FBI chain of command and outsourced to an expendable asset. In the foreground lies something considerably more intimate, a dual character study of two men enmeshed in an adversarial, high-stakes relationship: the activist firebrand Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the government snitch in his midst. King’s film is at its most interesting when these polarities reverse, in moments when the liar suspects he’s becoming a true believer, or the messiah faces a case of imposter syndrome. Early on, there’s a beautifully conceived and acted sequence when we see Kaluuya’s Hampton rehearsing for an upcoming address by listening to a recording of Malcolm X’s 1964 “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, as if trying to pattern his delivery after his predecessor. The pathos is twofold: one black messiah measuring himself against another, unaware that he’ll soon join him on the roll call of a decade’s premature American martyrs.
A swiftly edited pre-credit montage emphasizes that despite the media sensationalism around the Panthers as being, in Hoover’s words, a “threat to internal security” their grassroots popularity was as much a byproduct of community outreach and local educational reform as their subversive aesthetics and incendiary rhetoric. Hampton was one of the group’s young stars, a gifted communicator whose oratorical skills belied his age. Judas and the Black Messiah is punctuated by sequences showing him on the stump, showcasing the mix of solidarity and skepticism that allowed his audience to feel like it was part of something while scrutinizing their own attitudes and actions (or lack thereof). “If you dare not to struggle,” Hampton warned his followers, “you don’t deserve to win.”
It was Hampton’s class-conscious activism, and his yearning for a broader left-wing constituency—a so-called “Rainbow Coalition” of marginalized communities that subordinated identity politics to anticapitalist aims—that especially spooked Hoover and his cronies. Judas and the Black Messiah duly shows the Panthers reaching out in good faith to other ethnic and political factions, including the Latino turf gang turned civil rights organization the Young Lords and the leftist Southerner collective the Young Patriots, whose good ol’ boy membership connects with Hampton’s metaphor of America as a country on fire. “He could sell salt to a slug,” marvels O’Neal, who knows salesmanship, having gotten Hampton and the rest of his inner circle to buy into the idea that he’s their brother in arms.
When we first see O’Neal, he’s decked out in a fedora and trench coat and flashing a fake FBI badge in a Chicago dive bar, a scam predicated on intimidation and aesthetics. Later, confronted in his cell by actual government agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons)—who makes a point of showing off his genuine credentials—O’Neal points out that a badge is a more effective tool of intimidation than a gun. The FBI agent, who has a badge and a gun, couldn’t agree more, and makes O’Neal an offer he can’t refuse: reinvent himself in yet another disguise—as a camouflage-wearing Black Panther initiate—or proceed directly to jail.
Already in his career, Stanfield has excelled playing characters trapped in personas not quite their own: the body-snatched victim of Get Out; the code-switching office drone of Sorry to Bother You. His acting in Judas and the Black Messiah is initially difficult to evaluate because it seems for long stretches like his character has no center: O’Neal is furtive, bristling, and diffident, locked into his own head and cut off from anything resembling principles or charisma. This blurriness is just right for a man perpetually sweating the risk of exposure; it conveys the psychic damage of trying to reconcile mercenary self-preservation with a burgeoning revolutionary idealism. (The film concludes with a clip of the real William O’Neal, interviewed by PBS in the late 1980s for the documentary series Eyes on the Prize II; what happened after the filming of that segment is revealed during the credits).
Stanfield’s submerged anxiety gives Judas and the Black Messiah its steady, vibrating tension. Kaluuya gives it its soul. Tasked with playing a genuinely transformative figure, he rises to the occasion with a performance that seems to magnetize the camera and the other actors around him. Everything is drawn toward him. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, the actor explained that he went to an opera coach in order to train his voice to reproduce Hampton’s commanding, musical cadence, and he soars during the scenes recreating those speeches. He also evokes some of the same ambivalence and ambiguity as Stanfield; just as O’Neal is caught between contradictory roles, Hampton must navigate the relationship between righteous notoriety and privacy. Talking to Hampton after a meeting, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), an aspiring poet and his future partner, compliments him on his way with words. Later, she confronts her lover with a set of verses (written by the actress) that pledge love and admiration while demanding that a self-proclaimed man of the people be accountable to the individuals in his immediate orbit, not only Deborah but also their unborn son.
Johnson was present the night that Hampton was killed, and in a film that features several muscular action-movie-style set pieces—including a daylight police raid on a Panther stronghold that echoes Michael Mann—the violence of the home-invasion climax is rendered with clinical and devastating restraint. The staging evokes recent acts of racist police brutality (including and especially the killing of Breonna Taylor) without fetishizing its own timeliness. It’s because Judas and the Black Messiah has a sense of history that it works as a movie of the moment. Like Hampton’s speeches, the parallels between past and present are allowed to speak for themselves.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.