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Judas and the Black Messiah Review: HBO Max's Excellent Black Panthers Thriller Gets the Details Right

LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya turn in fantastic performances

Jordan Hoffman

Jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk plays the opening notes to his song "The Inflated Tear" by blowing into three saxes at the same time. That may seem wild, but the plaintive melody grows all the more haunting when divided among multiple instruments. The notes swerve around one another, as if trying to find a safe perch of harmony.

We hear an except of "The Inflated Tear" twice in Shaka King's outstanding historical thriller Judas and the Black Messiah, which debuted at this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival ahead of its Feb. 12 premiere on HBO Max. At first, it's when William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), wearing a long coat and (in his words) a Humphrey Bogart hat, bounds into a bar, posing as an FBI agent as part of a convoluted ploy to steal a car. Much later in the film, the song reappears as O'Neal decides he will slip a drug into Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya)'s drink, fairly certain this will leave him a sitting duck for an FBI assassination. O'Neal is the same man at the beginning and end of the film, but there are divergent notes along the way.

"We must prevent the rise of a Black messiah!" FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, made up to look a lot like Borat star Rudy Giuliani) shouts, declaring the Black Panther Party to be a bigger threat to the United States than "the Chinese or the Russians!" Later, when Hampton is set to return to jail on ridiculous charges, Hoover blurts that "prison is a temporary solution." The establishment has this man in its sights.

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Fred Hampton was the young, charismatic Chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, whose stated goals were to provide food, healthcare, and education to Black people. In the film he quotes Mao Zedong, supports armed resistance over symbolic gestures like wearing dashikis, and, at least at first, seems wholly disinterested in any relationship other than the one he has with The Cause.

After O'Neal gets busted using an FBI badge to boost cars, federal agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) puts the squeeze on him. O'Neal can avoid prison if he infiltrates the Black Panthers, gets close to Hampton, and provides information. We've seen movies like this before (The Departed, Donnie Brasco) but never with quite these circumstances.

What follows is fascinating. O'Neal, who is 51 percent the main character, is really just out to save his own skin. But the more he sees how the police are harassing and ultimately killing the Panthers, he grows less sure about the operation. This is due, in no small part, to Hampton's remarkable leadership and rhetoric, which Kaluuya takes to like a true virtuoso.

Judas and the Black Messiah

LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah


Director Shaka King is unafraid to hit pause on the plot -- one that has no shortage of suspenseful l "oh, he's about to get caught right now!" moments -- to let Kaluuya's Hampton testify. This is a man who, before the age of 21, was able to form a unity movement (the Rainbow Coalition) between the Chicago Black Panthers, a Latinx group, and a gang of angry blue-collar whites (the Young Patriots Organization) who had come to Chicago from Appalachian areas and saluted a Confederate Flag at their meetings.

Hampton's words and actions define his "Black Messiah" status, but King (who co-wrote the screenplay) is confident enough to show alternate perspectives. Plemons' FBI man boasts that he worked on the Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney case — the three civil rights workers (two New York City Jews, one Southern Black man) who were lynched trying to expand voter registration in Mississippi. He is convinced that the Ku Klux Klan and Black Panthers are two sides of the same coin, and whether you think this is hogwash or not, it is less clear just how we're supposed to feel about this man's virtue. (Other agents are more cartoonish in their clumsily racist attitudes.)

Through this all, Stanfield, like O'Neal himself, keeps everything close to the vest. Like so many of the richest characters in cinema, he is a jumble of contradictions; you never quite know what he's truly thinking. Naturally, this is all coming to a violent, tragic end, but, with the hindsight of history, certain matters do become more clear.

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Judas and the Black Messiah is not "a Fred Hampton biopic." It's a cop movie, really, just one where the cops are unequivocally the bad guys. Apart from the great performances, the 1968/'69 details are exquisite and, beyond just Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the music choices are terrific. There are none of the usual clichés like James Brown or The Temptations. Instead there are deep cuts like Horace Parlan, Eddie Gale, and a Gil Scott-Heron track that isn't "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

That speaks to an urgency on Shaka King's part to make this movie feel fresh. We've seen the Panthers portrayed in films before, but always as caricatures. (How is Forrest Gumpreal?) Even if you disagree with their methods, this movie is here to remind you that everyone in this struggle was a real person with a story to tell.

TV Guide rating: 4/5

Judas and the Black Messiah premieres Friday, Feb. 12 on HBO Max.