Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (available on Amazon Prime) leaves us in no doubt as to who is the more interesting character. This preference is obscured (or perhaps highlighted) by the fact that the actors playing the two parts (LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya) have both been nominated as ‘best supporting actor’ at this year’s Oscars, as if there were no main role, or it might be dangerous to say which it is.
The film has the look and sound of a stylish thriller. It opens with a hold-up in a Chicago bar. There are shadows on the streets, old-fashioned raincoats, plenty of killings. Discreet big band jazz enters the soundtrack now and again. The language is full of hints and indirection. When a character says ‘prison is a temporary solution,’ he means that only death can put a proper end to subversive behaviour. When the same character says he and his men need to ‘think more creatively’, he means it’s time to commit a murder or two. We are watching a thriller, but we are also watching something else: a dramatised documentary ‘inspired by true events’. These events take place in 1968 and 1969, and we see two clips from a TV film made in 1989, one near the beginning of the movie and the other at the end; the first is simulated, as far as I can tell, and the second is original footage. These scenes involve Judas, alias Bill O’Neal, who infiltrated the Chicago Black Panthers on behalf of the FBI. He passed on plenty of information, but probably had very little to do with the police shooting of the Panther Messiah, Fred Hampton, also known as Chairman Fred, on 4 December 1969. In footage not shown in the movie, O’Neal said the FBI wasn’t involved, blaming the killing entirely on the Chicago police, but this isn’t the way Judas and the Black Messiah, written by King and Will Berson, sees it. The man who thinks prison is a temporary solution, and wants more than prison for Hampton is J. Edgar Hoover, played with splendid unction by Martin Sheen.
The first piece of action in the film shows O’Neal pretending to arrest some billiard players in a bar. He flashes a badge that is supposed to prove he is employed by the FBI, but all he really wants to do is create enough havoc to allow him to steal a fancy car outside. O’Neal gets in the car and drives off, but the police catch up with him quickly and soon he is being interrogated by an actual FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Mitchell is interested in the fake badge – what was that for? O’Neal replies, memorably, that ‘a badge is scarier than a gun.’ Mitchell tells O’Neal he’ll get eighteen months in prison for auto theft, and five years for impersonating an agent. After a pause, he says: ‘Or you can go home.’ The story begins.
We first see Fred Hampton making a fiery speech, sounding more like a preacher than any kind of politician. He wants his audience to recognise ‘the difference between revolution and the candy-coated façade of gradual reform’. (Throughout the film he asks audiences to chant ‘I am a revolutionary.’) In the front row is a young woman who looks as if she likes Hampton but is sceptical about the performance. Afterwards she asks if he cares for poetry. He says he’s a man of action and poetry is just words. She says he was using words just now, and he starts to pay attention to her. She is Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback): they get together, she becomes pregnant and they have some tense conversations about the wisdom of ‘bringing a child into a warzone’, which is what their world is rapidly turning into. In the meantime, though, Hampton has organised a free breakfast scheme for the city, various medical and literacy programmes, and created the Rainbow Coalition with some unlikely white and Puerto Rican allies, along with some rival black groups. Once he becomes too much for the FBI, Hampton is arrested on a trivial charge; while he is in jail, the police attack the Panthers’ headquarters: ‘Cops Torch Terrorist Haven’, is the way the local paper puts it. The office is set up again and Hampton gets out of prison, but not for long. In any case, he is killed before he can serve a second sentence. Johnson gives birth to their child 25 days after the assassination.
One scene brings together many of the film’s preoccupations. Hampton is talking to a large crowd, firing their revolutionary inclinations. O’Neal is there, looking like a committed Panther, shouting at all the right moments. O’Neal’s handler, Mitchell, is there too, looking like a polite liberal visitor, clapping mildly when he thinks it’s appropriate. The camera cuts from Hampton to the crowd and back, and also keeps showing us O’Neal and Mitchell in their separate places. It’s as if we are seeing the individual stories that hide in the very idea of an audience. When they next meet, Mitchell says he’d been thinking, looking at O’Neal, ‘either this guy deserves an Academy Award or he believes in this shit.’ O’Neal realises he’s in danger – Mitchell could easily betray him to the Panthers – and protests. But was he acting too well or not well enough? In fact, Mitchell is putting pressure on O’Neal because he wants to involve him in the plans resulting from Hoover’s ‘thinking more creatively’, which will lead to Hampton’s death. O’Neal says he can’t be part of the operation any longer, in spite of the money waved in front of him. ‘You sure about this?’ Mitchell asks, and a title card informs us that O’Neal continued to work for the FBI for several years.
One of the purest moments of fear in the film doesn’t concern O’Neal or Hampton but Mitchell. He is sitting in Hoover’s office, and Hoover is genially making small talk. He asks Mitchell how his two sons are, and Mitchell says they are fine. Then Hoover asks about Mitchell’s daughter – she’ll be, what, eight months old now? Mitchell’s face freezes, looks briefly as though it may never move again. Then he returns to an imitation of normality. Hoover has a question about the little girl, or about her future incarnation. ‘What will you do when she brings home a negro?’ Mitchell doesn’t have an answer to the question, and perhaps doesn’t understand it. Hoover makes his point clear. White people in America are ‘at war’, he says, and ‘what is at stake if we lose this war is our entire way of life.’ This is nasty but not surprising, and we may find ourselves lingering more in Mitchell’s moment of fear. What does it mean for a demonstration of knowledge to feel like a threat?
Age doesn’t seem to matter much in the movie, though it comes up in the historical information offered at the end. Hampton and O’Neal are young men without precise birthdays, and the actors are 32 and 29. But Hampton was 21 when he died, and O’Neal was 17 when he was conscripted by the FBI. I’m not suggesting the movie had to pay attention to this, but the earliness of these careers is surely striking. It certainly made me wonder what it feels like to be Judas in this late revision of the old tale. O’Neal’s claim in the 1989 TV film that he was ‘part of the struggle’ is unconvincing, and nothing he does in the movie creates any serious sympathy for him. But we can ask ourselves what his options were when the FBI had him in its clutches, and we can respect his claim that he ‘wasn’t one of those people that want to sit back now and judge the actions and inactions of people when they sat back on the sideline and did nothing’. It’s always useful to think about what actually can be done when doing nothing is an unavailable luxury. O’Neal seems composed enough in the TV footage, but within months of being interviewed he killed himself.