The phrase “Black Messiah” is used only once in Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” but its use carries a great significance. The messiah in question is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) during the late 1960s. He was an activist whose popularity and conviction earned him the deadly ire of the FBI. It’s telling, however, that it was not his loyal comrades in the BPP that gave him his title, nor was it the adoring masses of all the creeds and colors he inspired and unified in protest. It’s J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), his Pontius Pilate, who singled out Hampton as the Black Messiah. It‘s this labeling of Hampton that leads the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to create the titular Judas in Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty criminal turned FBI informant who gains Hampton’s confidence. From there, this true story plays out as the biblical tragedy you would expect, and you become acutely aware that “Black Messiah” isn’t a nickname, it is the FBI’s death sentence. The movie is concerned with how that verdict is carried out by providing the FBI’s step by step procedure for provoking violence in order to justify inflicting government sanctioned violence.
O’Neal begins this movie by posing as an FBI agent in order to steal a car. He is charged with impersonating a federal officer but is granted amnesty on the condition that he work for the FBI as a mole in the BPP. During his time as a mole, he commits heinous betrayals which his handler, Special Agent Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons), encourages. O’Neal turns out to be more of a criminal as a government asset than he was as a common thug. But of course, when a man with an official title tells you to do something, it doesn’t count as a crime, which the film makes clear through the collateral deaths caused by other FBI informants in the film. The FBI acts as a hammer for all of America’s upstart nails. However, oppression without reason is tyranny and open tyranny is bad publicity, so the FBI must also pry up the nails every so often so they can be hammered back down.
The Black Panthers are mostly nonviolent in this film as they work to unite the downtrodden and frustrated masses in protest against over-policing and institutionalized poverty. What violence the BPP does commit in this film is always brought upon themselves by their provocation of the powers that be. When the police surround the Black Panther headquarters with guns, one of the Black Panthers pulls out a shotgun to show they have one, leading the police to riddle the building with bullets and burn it down. They point to the wreckage and exclaim: “See what you made us do? It’s your fault we’re even here.” Rather than openly barging into Hampton’s home and disappearing him like the Cheka Police, they convict him with trumped-up charges and then make him disappear. King uses Hampton’s sad story to lay out this pattern of pressure, provocation and punishment in order to show how the FBI labels groups like the BPP as criminals, pressures them into violence, frustrated and desperate for some semblance of power and control, and then escalates their “retaliation” even further.
Mitchell the handler is especially interesting. Though he pushes O’Neal through the steps of his betrayal, even he seems naive to the nature of his targets and orders. He compares the BPP to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) without a semblance of irony or evidence. He is surprised and unnerved when told by his higher-ups to turn O’Neal into a triggerman. But he does so anyway. In the end, Mitchell seems forced to justify his orders through the incentives he provides O’Neal. He comes off as more excited to see his spy receive his reward than his spy is to receive it. The FBI officers justify the violence they use with the violence they inspire, which works just as well as an excuse as the 30 pieces of silver did for the betrayal of Jesus.
Hampton is doomed from the moment Hoover chooses him as his windmill to tilt at. With or without O’Neal, the FBI would have destroyed him. The only choice O’Neal actually made in this movie is whether or not O’Neal is willing to be corrupted as a tool of oppression. He can’t change Hampton’s fate, but he could have refused to turn on his own. Of course, he doesn’t refuse. Stanfield’s performance captures that crushing lack of choice in blazing detail, portraying a frustrated selfish coward in such a charismatic and empathetic way that his betrayal makes our hearts break for him more than for Hampton.
Of course, Kaluuya’s Hampton embodies all the strength and virtue of the real man. Thankfully he is written and acted not as a non-confrontational Christ, but as a conflicted leader forced to place his cause before his wants, relationships and desire to live. Hampton manages this all while maintaining composure and commitment, lest his entire movement lose steam. Through Kaluuya we see the regrets and determination of a man who knows the path he walks will likely not end well for him or his loved ones, but who resolves to walk it anyway. Even Plemmons’ Mitchell surpasses the cold G-man he could have been, and is human enough that we root for him to ignore Hoover’s orders just as we root for O’Neal to ignore Mitchell.
Through his filmmaking, Shaka King has turned an otherwise demoralizing tale of injustice into a biblical epic tragedy rife with tension, tears and truth. Though it cultivates a claustrophobic atmosphere of hopelessness and pressure under a sanctioned authoritarian inquisition, this film refuses to be nihilistic. It lays out the workings of the system, showing us the face of the monster so we can recognize it today. The achievement of this movie is the same as those of Hampton’s sermons to his frustrated masses. It allows us to know the beast, and if it can be known, it can one day be slain.