It’s strange how in certain years, a slate of films can have a degree of connectivity that is rarely intended, but often fascinating. This is one of those years, as a good amount of the prestige fare has dealt with the American Civil Rights movement in one form or another. Two particular films made references that now collide to bring a third movie to national attention. In the documentary, MLK/FBI, there is mention about how then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who saw racial equality as an existential threat to the Union, targeted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in part because he didn’t want any leader to form enough of a following to become a quote, “Black Messiah.” In The Trial of the Chicago 7, the temporary eighth defendant, Bobby Seale, at one point makes a stand in court to protest the police murder of Fred Hampton, a local leader of the Black Panther Party, who had given him legal advice during the trial.
Both of those moments stood out to me when I saw the films, knowing that Shaka King’s new movie, Judas and the Black Messiah was on the horizon. And sure enough, those references come to bear. The film is indeed about the betrayal of Hampton by an FBI informant that leads to his death, and Martin Sheen as Hoover explicitly uses the “Messiah” phrase in an opening scene addressing his G-Men about how to take down the leaders of the movement.
But if we’re really going to play the meta game here, I feel like it’s better to look at this film as something of a Passion Play. The action includes several moments that read like allegory to the New Testament. Stripped down to its most basic elements, the movie is just a standard-issue tale about an informant in way over his head after making a Faustian bargain to protect himself. But King, along with co-writers Will Berson and Kenny and Keith Lucas, gives the film a much more epic feel, aided by some of our generation’s greatest actors at the top of their games.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as Hampton, playing him as charismatic, free spirited, and deeply impassioned. When he meets Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), he’s described as an angry poet, not exactly knowing where to focus his righteous rage as he recruits people to the Panthers’ cause. Over the course of the film, he becomes more determined, but also more open in his outreach, eventually forming the Rainbow Coalition and directing the bulk of his efforts to ending gang violence and establishing philanthropic causes like free breakfast programs for Chicago’s youth.
This is all very Christ-like, particularly as he gives his speeches, but he also maintains the fatalist outlook often depicted in the Passion. At one rousing oration in a church, his Sermon on the Mount if you will, he makes it clear that he holds no illusions that he’ll die of illness or accident, but at the hands of those who wish to silence him. He is prepared to be a martyr, much like Jesus was. In one of the few departures from the character, though, he is surrounded by security rather than apostles, and is often armed.
On the other side is Bill O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield. A small-time car thief, he’s busted in the film’s opening after impersonating an FBI agent to steal a man’s wheels. For the time (1968), it’s actually a pretty clever con. After his capture, he’s given the impossible choice by an actual FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons): either spend the next five years in prison, or turn informant and infiltrate the Panthers, for which he’ll be given a monetary stipend in addition to an agreement not to prosecute.
At first things go very well for Bill. He quickly rises through the ranks of the Party, to the point where he becomes Hampton’s chauffeur and eventually chief of security. Meanwhile, he passes intel to Mitchell, most of which is benign, and he not only gets money but an actual taste of the sweet life, as Mitchell hosts him at fancy steak houses and in his own home. Mitchell even says he’s for the Civil Rights Movement, just not racial violence, from either side. As tensions between the Panthers and police escalate, and as Hoover pressures Mitchell, Bill gets scared of being found out and wants to quit, but Mitchell doubles down and reminds him of not just the prison time he already faces, but what his exposure will mean in terms of retribution from the Party.
This also plays to the biblical Judas, who as the story goes betrayed Jesus to the Romans for a few pieces of silver. In Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ movie, he tries to return the silver only for it to be thrown back at him. There’s a similar moment in this film where Mitchell casually tosses some wadded and folded bills down on the table for O’Neal to gather up for his work. Throw in the steaks, which also reminded me of Cypher and Agent Smith in The Matrix – itself a biblical allegory – and the similarities keep on piling up.
And it’s not just in the main characters. There are bits and pieces scattered all over. Hampton tries to unite all the rival gangs and social groups in Chicago in common cause, much like the idea of uniting the 12 tribes of Israel. There’s a literal “Last Supper” in Hampton’s apartment before he’s killed. Even Bill O’Neal’s ultimate fate tracks with the religious narrative. Seriously, all we’re missing is O’Neal giving Hampton a kiss to identify him to authorities.
The comparison works so well because the actors sell it nearly perfectly. Kaluuya and Stanfield both performed in Get Out a few years ago, though they only had one scene together. But even that one scene showed just how well they could play off each other, and that potential is fully realized here. The pride, the fear, the camaraderie, it’s all believable because of just how tremendous these actors are. Jesse Plemons as well pulls off the difficult and thankless task of actually coming off somewhat sympathetically given the oaths he’s made to the Bureau and the reluctance he clearly shows in having to strongarm O’Neal. Fishback lends sympathy and nuance to Deborah Johnson, deeply conflicted about bringing a child into a modern-day warzone, in a role that could have just been a cookie cutter love interest part. She makes sure that Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri) has her own agency and dimensions independent of her love for Hampton.
There are two areas where the film falls a little bit short. One is Martin Sheen. He’s a terrific actor and I love him to death, but his version of J. Edgar Hoover is almost as bad as Leonardo DiCaprio’s from a few years back. In a weird way, it almost makes sense if you think of it in the larger context of a Passion Play, because for centuries the play was used to incite hatred and violence, particularly against Jews. While I don’t think Shaka King is going for similar rage against law enforcement, the depiction of Hoover is cartoonishly evil. Don’t get me wrong, Hoover was a racist piece of shit, and deserves to only be remembered as such, but this version was a snickering caricature, lacking only the casual use of the “n-word” to be full-on gratuitous. He even pressures Mitchell to “neutralize” Hampton with the D.W. Griffiths-esque bogeyman idea of Mitchell’s infant daughter eventually bringing home a black man as her lover/husband. What I’m saying is that there was a more nuanced way to get the point across while still being true to Hoover’s bullshit racist persona.
Second – and this is minor, but it couldn’t be ignored – as great as this cast is, they’re far too old for the characters they’re playing. Fred Hampton was 21 when he was killed. Daniel Kaluuya is 32. Bill O’Neal was apprehended and recruited by the FBI at age 17. Lakeith Stanfield is 29. Deborah Johnson was 20 at the time of the movie. Dominique Fishback is 29. You can play it loose a bit with the ages when it’s within five years, but we’re talking close to a decade or more here. It’s easier to do this when you’re dealing with actors in their 40s or 50s playing people in their 30s, but when they’re kissing 30 (or over) and pretending to be a teenager? I’m sorry. There’s just no universe where I look at Lakeith Stanfield and say, “Oh yeah, I can buy 17.” And it’s not just so much the look of their actual ages, but that they play these characters with the maturity of someone their age, not as someone just out of high school or college. It’s not that big of a deal, because the quality of the performances far outweigh such a nitpick, but if there was ever a time to blow half the budget on the de-aging face tech, this was it.
All the same, this is an excellent film, and well worthy of the awards buzz it’s getting (chiefly for Kaluuya, the screenplay, and for H.E.R.’s song “Fight for You”). Shaka King takes a simple yet compelling tale of a civil rights martyr and elevates it to an almost literal religious experience by leaning into biblical parallels. The main cast features four of the best actors working today and King lets them show off all their talents in a big way. The last year has seen the fires lit all over the country for a referendum on racial justice. If you’re going to keep the people’s passions inflamed, this is the way to do it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who’s your favorite young actor? Have you ever taken to the streets for social justice? Let me know!