Director: Shaka King
Date: Feb. 12, 2021
R | 2 hour 6 minutes
From its frenetic opening scene to its infuriating climax, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a moving portrayal of Black Panther Illinois party chairman Fred Hampton and a perfect execution of the biopic format.
The film immediately distinguishes itself from typical biopic fare by focusing not on Hampton, but on Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a career criminal-turned-FBI informant who betrayed Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the Panthers for years while continuing to progress through their ranks.
After boosting a car with the help of a counterfeit FBI badge, O’Neal is quickly apprehended and offered a deal by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons): infiltrate the Black Panthers and get close to Hampton and the FBI will forgive his charges — not to mention pay him handsomely.
Director and co-writer Shaka King deftly portrays O’Neal’s transition from suspicious outsider to valued member of the Panthers, aided by Stanfield’s impeccable performance as a shifty, passionate schemer who initially feels no allegiance to the Panthers, but remains firmly conflicted about his involvement with federal law enforcement nonetheless.
Released Feb. 12, the film follows Hampton as he begins doing outreach with other Chicago anti-capitalist organizations. A major emphasis of the film is the Rainbow Coalition, a multicultural alliance between the Panthers, the Young Patriots Organization and the Young Lords, local Chicago gangs-turned-social activist organizations.
Throughout all of it, O’Neal passes intel to Mitchell in a series of restaurant meet-ups and payphone calls. Meanwhile, Mitchell receives increasing pressure from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) to take drastic action against Hampton.
The film’s screenplay, penned by King and rewritten with help from Will Berson and the Lucas Brothers, is heavy with direct quotes from Hampton and Hoover alike. Even the film’s title is derived from a quote of Hoover’s:
“Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement,” Hoover wrote in a declassified FBI document detailing the objectives of the now infamous COINTELPRO, an illegal FBI operation designed to infiltrate and disrupt American political organizations.
The film’s portrayal of the FBI and its motivations is incomplete — emphasizing the still very real white panic and racist sentiment of the Bureau, but placing very little emphasis on its fear over the Panther’s socialist politics. Still, the characterization of the Bureau’s war on Black and leftist organizations is accurate, and ought to be shocking for viewers who haven’t read up on the film’s events.
With his portrayal of Hampton and the Panthers, King achieves a combination of historical realism without sacrificing cinematic flourish or deeply intimate human connection.
“Anywhere there’s people, there’s power,” Hampton says in the film, a quote taken from a number of speeches the real life Hampton gave. King’s film — and more specifically the events of Hampton’s life — impart this quote with a deep layer of tragedy.
Before I go further, I want to provide a spoiler warning for anyone reading who doesn’t know how Hampton’s story ends.
I believe everyone should know, and anyone who doesn’t should read about it regardless of whether they’ve seen King’s film or not. That being said, the film is an achievement as an espionage thriller alone, and it’s not my job to take away from its effectiveness, so prepare to have the film spoiled for you past this point.
Kaluuya’s Hampton doesn’t find himself on screen as much as you might expect, a result of the film’s narrative structure. But King’s portrayal of him is fitting — if the FBI viewed him as a potential messiah, why shouldn’t we? Kaluuya is masterful as Hampton, portraying his anger, his passion and his sensitivity in equal parts.
All this serves to make the FBI’s murder of the 21-year-old political activist all the more infuriating to watch. The details are fuzzy, but we have the general outline: on the night of his death, Hampton was drugged with a sedative, then shot multiple times while he slept in bed following a Chicago Police Department (CPD) raid.
Panther member Mark Clark was shot in the chest, killing him instantly and causing him to fire his gun in an involuntary convulsion (the only shot fired by the Panthers that night). This was an assassination, aided by FBI informant O’Neal and perpetuated by CPD.
And so, Hampton’s quote lives on.
“Anywhere there’s people, there’s power.”
The FBI knew this. They saw Hampton’s ability to affect change — his young age, his skill as an orator, a negotiator and a revolutionary — and they killed him for it.
King’s film is not interested in the ice cream Hampton stole. It’s not interested in the violence committed by civilians against civilians. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is interested in the war fought by the FBI, the U.S. government and law enforcement as a whole against American civilians of color. It’s an exploration of the humanity behind Hampton, the Black Panthers and so many others’ decision to identify that war as what it is, and to fight back no matter the stakes.
I’d like to end this review on the same Fred Hampton quote the movie does.
“If you ever think about me, and if you ain’t gonna do no revolutionary act, forget about me. I don’t want myself on your mind, if you’re not gonna work for the people. Like we always said, if you’re asked to make a commitment at the age of 20 and you say I don’t want to make that commitment only because of the simple reason that I’m too young to die, I wanna live a little bit longer — what you did is, you’re dead already.”
“Judas and the Black Messiah,” rated R, is now streaming on HBO Max.