The sad, shifty and inglorious business of government informants working inside radical protest groups is something that usually takes years to come out – if at all – because nobody wants to talk about it. Governments don’t want to gloat because it might mean admitting they knew all about certain events or attacks in advance but did nothing because they wanted to keep their asset in place to forestall some bigger situation. And the protest groups are angry and ashamed at the infiltration. And something desolate attaches to the long-term snitches themselves, who look horribly dysfunctional, like bigamists revealed to have a second wife and family. Sam Pollard’s documentary MLK/FBI touched briefly on the supposedly loyal insiders within Martin Luther King’s organisation who were secretly reporting to J Edgar Hoover – a subject so painful that it can still hardly be discussed.
Now there is this fiercely watchable and passionately performed drama from the director Shaka King, with barnstorming performances from Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya – about the Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton who in 1969, at the age of 21, was cold-bloodedly shot at home during a raid by the FBI. The Bureau had been given inside information about the layout of his apartment by their snitch: Hampton’s trusted security chief William O’Neal, a former petty criminal who had been arrested and “turned” by the FBI man Roy Mitchell four years previously, and then instructed to rise up through the Black Panther ranks. O’Neal had also drugged Hampton’s drink so that he would be asleep or bleary during the raid and unable to escape.
O’Neal might be nothing more than a footnote, but this drama shrewdly and fascinatingly elevates him to equal status with Hampton – a diptych of tragic irony, the Judas to Hampton’s messiah, a guy who had come up from the same streets as Hampton and might, if things had been different, had the same vocation. Daniel Kaluuya is Hampton himself, a little bulked up, and superbly conveying the muscular force of his charisma, his rhetoric and his instinctive leadership, and he brilliantly turns on the death-ray of Hampton’s basilisk stare. And Stanfield gives us a career-best performance as poor William O’Neal, wonderfully cast as the ordinary guy who gets in over his head: Stanfield’s gentle face, often breaking into a slippery but charming smile, is enough to break your heart. Dominique Fishback is surely in line for a best supporting actress Oscar, with her sensitive, sympathetic performance as Fred’s partner Deborah Johnson. Jesse Plemons is Roy Mitchell, the Bureau man “running” O’Neal and Martin Sheen has a returning cameo in heavy facial prosthetic as the creepy J Edgar himself.
Judas and the Black Messiah seems to have taken one or two liberties with the facts: it does not seem to be the case that O’Neal, in his petty-thievery days, was passing himself off as an FBI man, that seems too good to be true and it is. But what a high-octane charge of excitement Kaluuya and Stanfield bring to the screen simply by showing up. There is something mesmeric about the way Hampton, with an almost Napoleonic confidence, faces everyone down with his searching gaze, and yet is boyishly shy with Deborah, and Fishback’s contribution is so important for giving the audience access to the drama. As for Stanfield, he makes O’Neal seem sympathetic or even romantic in his patently doomed career of treason: visibly thrilled to be taken out by Mitchell for a lavish steak-house lunch on the Bureau’s tab or invited to Mitchell’s house and allowed to drink his scotch; never in denial exactly, in fact excruciatingly aware of the danger, but never facing up to what he is doing. Yet the inevitable, terrible moment comes during a meal at Hampton’s house – the last supper.
Somehow, the Judas figure seems as important, almost more important than the Messiah: I found myself thinking of the Borges story, Three Versions Of Judas, in which Judas’s destiny and significance is terrifyingly revealed to be much greater than anyone imagined. Like many biopics, this ends with a postscript – three or four stark sentences about the historical facts. It’s a cliche, but Shaka King does something very unexpected with it: he begins with Lakeith Stanfield playing the older O’Neal giving a TV interview in 1990 about his life, and ends with the real O’Neal saying the same words – but there is a vicious sting in the tail. It’s a powerful tale of human frailty.
Judas and the Black Messiah is screening at the Sundance film festival and will be released in the US on 12 February, in the UK on 26 February and in Australia on 11 March