It isn’t often that you get to follow an actor from the very start of the ride. Back in 2008, I saw a short film called “Short Term 12,” featuring LaKeith Stanfield in the small but critical part of a troubled teenager. He reprised the role when the film was expanded into a 2013 feature, and then I started seeing him everywhere: As the young man shot and killed in the diner in “Selma” (2014), as the guy who yells “Get out!” in “Get Out” (2017), anchoring the demented indie comedy “Sorry to Bother You” (2018), as the police detective foil to Daniel Craig in “Knives Out” and as Adam Sandler’s beleaguered fixer in “Uncut Gems” (both 2019). Man’s been busy.
Now Stanfield is the “Judas” part of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a ferocious and first-rate drama about the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton by the Chicago police in December 1969. His “Get Out” castmate Daniel Kaluuya is getting raves and nominations for playing Hampton, and deservedly so — it’s a huge performance, electric in the public moments and tender in private.
By contrast, Stanfield has received respectful but comparatively muted notices as William O’Neal, the petty criminal who was blackmailed into going undercover and rose high in the Chicago Panthers chapter while feeding information to the FBI and ultimately betraying the man who had become his friend. The difference in response goes to the heart of what makes the two actors distinct.
Was Bill O’Neal swayed by the cause (on either side)? Was he in it for the money or the power, or was he just scared of going to jail? Did he feel guilty for what he’d done? Director Shaka King and his co-writers re-create a 1989 documentary interview in which O’Neal professed to be proud of his work for the FBI, but the character remains a cipher, a moral blur, and, intriguingly, that’s how Stanfield plays him. This is an actor adept at conveying how his characters feel but rarely what they’re thinking, and the mystery of Bill O’Neal is resolved (to the extent it can be) only at the end, after Stanfield is gone from the screen. And then it hits you like a punch to the gut.
This is King’s second feature as director and a big jump in ambition and scale from his first, the 2013 stoner love triangle “Newlyweeds.” The film establishes the political lay of the land in the months following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Talk of revolution has turned overt, the Panthers are tending to the welfare of urban neighborhoods while presenting a bristling united front against white America, and the FBI, under the direction of an aging and paranoid J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, made up to resemble a melting animatronic dummy), has turned his secret COINTELPRO program into a rogue extrajudicial force.
After O’Neal is arrested for vehicle theft and impersonating an officer — he liked to wave a fake FBI badge while “repossessing” victim’s cars — he’s put in the care of agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who makes a show of befriending him while tightening the vise. (Again, it’s unclear whether O’Neal genuinely wants to buy into Mitchell’s middle-class life or is just feeding him a line.) Most of “Judas and the Black Messiah” is spent with Hampton as the Panther chairman forges a series of alliances with Chicago’s fragmented community leaders and gang chieftains — Black, Hispanic, White, all of them united by their hatred of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s brutalizing police force.
Kaluuya is mesmerizing in these scenes, as Hampton defuses tensions and stokes righteous rage in a thick, imperious voice that cuts through the static. He’s such an immense figure that when he finds himself sparring with, then flirting with, an activist named Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), his shyness becomes a source of comedy to both her and us. The real Johnson and her son, political activist Fred Hampton Jr., served as consultants on “Judas and the Black Messiah,” with the result that the “messiah” comes to seem disarmingly life-sized. Which only underscores the tragedy of what occurred.
If you watch the movie without knowing the history, you may be shocked that something like this could happen in America. (It helps to be naïve, too.) A pre-dawn raid on Hampton’s apartment by Chicago police resulted in two killed and four seriously wounded; the police fired nearly 100 rounds. Hampton, who had earlier been slipped a drink with a sedative by O’Neal, may never have woken up; he was shot in the shoulder and then twice in the head. (“He’s good and dead now,” Johnson reported hearing an officer say.) The 1971 documentary “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” includes footage of the apartment immediately after the raid; available for rental on Amazon, it’s still the best place to encounter the real Hampton.
By contrast, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a history lesson and a reclamation project, a reminder of racial resistance coming to a head in ways that echo the current moment, and a reintroduction to a man so dangerously effective that the powers that be had to kill him in his sleep. And then there’s Stanfield on the sidelines, playing the kind of extra to events that history never solves. The movie mourns what might have been and nags with what we’ll never know.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Directed by Shaka King. Written by King, Will Berson, Keith Lucas, and Kenneth Lucas. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Martin Sheen. In theaters and on HBO Max. 126 minutes. R (violence and pervasive language)