*Out of competition

Fred Hampton was so threatening to the American establishment that he was assassinated at the age of twenty one in his sleep by the FBI. His activism was so potent that it stretched across racial lines and promised a “rainbow” coalition. The FBI consistently referred to the Black Panther party as just as bad as the Klu Klux Klan. It’s a clever marketing device for the FBI to use on susceptible individuals.

Shaka King’s tense and masterful Judas and the Black Messiah follows William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) as he goes from being an unsuccessful two-bit criminal to being a very successful informant that infiltrated the Black Panthers. O’Neal focuses his efforts on getting as close to Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) as possible, climbing the ranks until he’s trusted like no one else in the party.

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O’Neal is aloof at first, fumbling through interactions and hardly able to keep a clean cover. The more skilled he gets, the more he realizes that he can manipulate his handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), for money and cars. Everything for William is transactional, until it isn’t.

He eventually gets sucked into Hampton’s vortex; it would be impossible not to. His oration and intellect are like magnets that pull everyone into his orbit. In one of the film’s best scenes, Hampton takes over the meeting of an impoverished white gang, and within seconds has turned enemies into comrades. With each success, the FBI grows more agitated by Hampton, as J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) searches for every reason to push forward his campaign of fear mongering.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The set up here is as old as time. Betrayal is one of the sturdiest formulas for any movie. King’s film focuses on O’Neal as an Uncle Tom, willing to turn his back on his community for a small gain. Stanfield, who can be a bit manic for me in certain roles, drops his traditional affectations, grounding William in the real world paranoia, but also shows the slow turn of a person coming over to a cause. It’s a fascinating crucible he finds himself in. He never felt any political ideology before, then becomes entranced by the civil rights movement, until he is called upon to commit the ultimate act of disloyalty. Plemons, as William’s handler, is the perfect square-jawed villain that believes they are on the side of righteousness.

The standout performance here is Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. He explodes off screen with an urgency and charisma that is palpable. When Hampton is in front of an audience, Kaluuya takes it over, enrapturing the people in front of him like a congregation. But in the private moments he plays Hampton as a man burdened by the moral responsibility he feels to bring forth change. He’s quiet and contemplative, and Kaluuya moves effortlessly between these two modes.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

King shows an exceptional understanding of the cinematic form, with splashes reminiscent of a young Scorsese. His anger is focused and mournful, penetrating to the emotional core with potent exhilaration. He understands that true villainy rarely stems from within, but from the society in which that villain exists.

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