The fact that American film and television is just now starting to chisel away at America’s racist history is damning; no wonder the pace of racial justice is so glacial. Recent shows like Lovecraft Country and Watchmen have been eye-opening speculative dives into history on this score, but Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) is even more unnerving for the way it dramatizes actual events. The film charts the efforts of charismatic Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) to champion equality and racial justice in late-sixties Chicago as the leader of the Black Panther party. Hampton’s left-wing rhetoric is so powerful that it draws the attention of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who brands Hampton’s party a terrorist movement. He engages his agents to infiltrate the organization, which leads Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to seek an inside informant. His man: Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty crook he’s able to leverage by threatening him with jail for impersonating an FBI agent. Trapped by circumstance, O’Neal undertakes the assignment, happily taking the associated remuneration, but as the conflict between the government and the Black Panthers escalates, O’Neal finds himself stuck in the middle, both loving and respecting Hampton even as he has no choice but to sell him out.
The systemic deficiencies of public education to adequately represent American history, especially as it pertains to race, are becoming more and more glaring with time. If there is a silver lining to Trumpism – and really there shouldn’t be, but here we are – it’s that it has exposed those deficiencies. Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful, eye-opening corrective, and enthralling and immersive journey into history that goes a long way to explaining where we are today. Kaluuya delivers an inspired, fiery performance in the lead, while Stanfield – increasingly becoming one of my favorite actors of his generation – does sensational work as the conflicted O’Neal. There’s also terrific work from Dominique Fishback (as Hampton’s girlfriend and speechwriter Deborah) and Plemons (who injects his generic suburban fed with potent, sinister complacency). A hard-hitting watch that pointedly gets to the heart of uncomfortable truths.