We caught a glimpse of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton in Aaron Sorkin’s superb and spiritually truthful “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” with Kelvin Harrison’s Hampton advising fellow Black Panther Bobby Seale early in the trial.
In the equally powerful and resonant “Judas and the Black Messiah,” we’re back in the Chicago of the late 1960s, but this time the focus is on Hampton’s rapid rise through the Black Panther ranks and the coordinated efforts by national and local law enforcement to stop him by any means necessary, resulting in the notorious predawn raid when Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death by Chicago police.
Despite law enforcement claims that the Panthers fired first, it eventually was shown that the police fired 90 shots, and the “bullet holes” supposedly left by Panthers’ gunfire actually were nail holes, the Chicago Sun-Times proved.
The specter of Hampton’s death hovers over the proceedings in director/co-writer Shaka King’s superbly rendered period piece. We know the story is going to end in a hail of bullets. While there’s no shortage of violence, including some shootouts prior to the night of the raid, “Judas and the Black Messiah” also has its moments of great inspiration, expertly played quieter scenes, and a touching romance between Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton and Dominique Fishback’s Deborah Johnson.
At first, Deborah is captivated by Hampton’s mesmerizing oratory skills and his ability to organize. But she falls in love with the thoughtful, caring, loving and even shy man who courts her.
Kaluuya is one of the best actors of his generation, and this is some of his finest work.
But more screen time is devoted to the story of LaKeith Stanfield’s William O’Neal, a car thief who avoids a lengthy prison sentence by agreeing to become an informer for the FBI. With the coldly calculating FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) and the vile and cunning J. Edgar Hoover himself (Martin Sheen, under unfortunate prosthetics) pushing and prodding O’Neal every step of the way, O’Neal infiltrates the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers, so impressing Hampton with his fiery dedication to the cause that Hampton makes him chief of security and takes him into the inner circle.
Writer-director King does an admirable job of showing all sides of the story. Hampton and the Panthers want to feed and clothe and educate the children and build free medical clinics in the poorest and most oppressed of Chicago’s neighborhoods. But we also see Hampton working up a crowd with an impassioned speech about how good it would feel to kill “pigs.”
And there’s a scene in which an associate of Hampton’s guns down two police officers making an arrest in a convenience store. It’s only a matter of time before the escalating tensions between the Panthers and the police will reach a point of no return.
This is a well-paced and expertly edited saga. For every elaborately staged production scene with Hampton giving speeches in packed halls or the Panthers and police facing off, there are equally impactful set pieces: for example, when O’Neal visits Mitchell at home for cigars, barbecue and fine whiskey, and we see O’Neal getting quite comfortable with the spoils of being a rat.
Or when O’Neal is in a bar and has an unsettling encounter with a flashy motormouth (Lil Rel Howery) he assumes is a pimp but actually is working for the FBI.
Every performance, whether it’s the leads or a one-scene wonder such as Howery, is masterful. Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad,” “The Irishman”) has the chameleon qualities of a Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he’s at the top of his game as Roy Mitchell, who is horrified by J. Edgar Hoover’s racism but doesn’t flinch at requiring O’Neal to provide him with a floor plan of Hampton’s apartment in advance of the raid.
Stanfield captures the screen with his multilayered performance as the tortured O’Neal. Kaluuya has been nominated for a best supporting actor Golden Globe and should merit Oscar consideration as well. What an impressive track record he’s already built, and what an incredible future he has.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” was filmed in Cleveland (unfortunately), and there are a couple of exterior shots that do NOT look like Chicago. But with so much of the action taking place in bars and living rooms and offices or on a small stretch of one street, it’s only a distraction once or twice.
Shaka King and the production team have done a stellar job of plunging us into the tinderbox that was late 1960s Chicago, when the city was in the national spotlight far too often for the wrong reasons.