“Judas and the Black Messiah” — brash, narratively risky, full of life and brimming with terrific actors. “Judas and the Black Messiah” deals with Hampton, played by the British actor Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” and “Black Panther.” He’s excellent, conveying Hampton’s public and private sides with equal parts fire and ice.
The film focuses largely on FBI informant William O’Neal, a one-time petty thief who worked his way up the chain of command to become head of Hampton’s Black Panther security. He then provided intelligence that led to the assault on Hampton’s apartment. The movie dwells in a clammy, claustrophobic space: O’Neal’s guilty conscience. Director King dares to humanize that man and that space; as a result, a fable of the betrayed and the betrayer has somewhere to go. At FBI agent Roy Mitchell’s request, O’Neal drew up a blueprint of Hampton’s apartment at 2337 W. Monroe St., just east of Western Avenue. On Dec. 6, 1969, 14 plainclothes CPD officers fired more than 90 times on Hampton and other Black Panther Party members. Two died, first Mark Clark, who was on guard that night, then Hampton. State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan claimed his men were under fire. Later a federal grand jury, noting such glaring details as nail holes masquerading as bullet holes meant to prove Hanrahan’s version of events, issued a damning report but no indictments.
The report, according to a Washington Post editorial, was impossible to read “without being appalled at the conduct of law enforcement agencies in Chicago.”
LaKeith Stanfield, of “Atlanta” and “Sorry to Bother You,” portrays O’Neal as a fascinating array of evasions, secrets and conflicted loyalties, all eating at the character from the inside. Jesse Plemons, a hypnotic, contained presence in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and “Game Night,” makes Mitchell a lawman of ambiguous complexity, dealing with his own, brief struggle with a guilty conscience.
The movie opens with re-created footage from the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” on which O’Neal appeared in 1990. (What happened after O’Neal appeared on that documentary is revealed just before the end credits.) By 1990, more than two decades after Hampton’s death, O’Neal had gone into witness protection. The screenplay quickly gets back to 1968 for the real story, starting when O’Neal is tearing around Chicago stealing cars, posing as an FBI agent, running afoul of the cops. In a stroke of great and terrible fortune, he’s offered a deal by the FBI to work undercover as a Black Panther infiltrator.
Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover was out to eliminate Hampton; as he once said, his mission was to prevent “the rise of a messiah that would unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement” at a time when America didn’t feel destined to hold together. (We’ll see your 1968 and raise you a 2021.)
On the other hand: This story can only go one direction. The script by Will Berson and director King sends two narrative trains running on parallel tracks which criss-cross, violently, inevitably. Hampton’s rise in the national Black Panther Party, his oratorical skills, the threat he posed to the feds after the bloodshed of 1967 and 1968: All that is more than enough for a 10-part series. “Judas and the Black Messiah” doesn’t sugarcoat Hampton’s inflammatory rhetoric, and it certainly doesn’t soft-pedal the coordination of federal, Cook County and Chicago authorities in the killing of Hampton. Early on, Plemons and Stanfield share one of many quiet encounters, where FBI agent Mitchell calmly explains the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers are both extremists threatening the American way of life. Any resemblance between that scene and countless conversations, columns and talking heads equating Black Lives Matter protests with what happened on the U.S. Capitol steps a month ago? Purely coincidental.
Chicago’s history of brutal, underhanded institutional bloodshed is, to put it mildly, history we’re all living with, still. “Judas and the Black Messiah” may stir the pot some, and I’m glad. The vividly wrought history feels like the present, and the actors seize the day.