*If you are not familiar with the true story of Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal, the following review will contain some spoilers for the movie.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical drama film directed and produced by Shaka King, from a screenplay written by King and Will Berson. It is based on a story by King, Berson, as well as Kenny and Keith Lucas. It stars Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, and Martin Sheen. While the story is seemingly about Hampton (Kaluuya), the film concentrates on William O’Neal (Stanfield) who was essentially forced to work for the FBI to infiltrate and spy on the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. O’Neal eventually became the organization’s chief of security and then supplied the floor plan of the building where Hampton was staying. This led to a raid in which Hampton was killed.
Kaluuya as Hampton gives an electrifying performance that is as riveting as the man himself. His delivery of the speeches are intense and have conviction. What the film does extremely well is show how Hampton had an ability to bring potential enemies and rivals together. He knew that there was strength in numbers and that they could turn heads to their ideas if they came together. The title is an allusion to former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s statement that they, “…must prevent the rise of Black Messiahs.” In Hampton’s case, they did so by enlisting O’Neal, a “Judas,” to infiltrate and betray him. This obviously ties into the biblical story when Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver to Pontius Pilate which led to Jesus’s crucifixion and Judas’s suicide. This film makes Judas the lead character and Stanfield does a fantastic job. The film doesn’t absolve O’Neal for his part in killing Hampton; rather, it humanizes him. Stanfield plays a conflicted man who wants to dedicate himself to the cause of Black liberation but also does not want to go to prison. Our natural inclination might be to vilify O’Neal for killing Hampton, but the film shows reasons to sympathise and how we might learn from his mistakes. Tragically, O’Neal also took his own life, again aligning himself to the biblical Judas.
Outside of these two men, the supporting cast is strong as well. Plemmons is great, with the best performances coming from Fishback as Deborah Johnson. The film really shows how big of an impact women had to the Black Panther organization. Fishback is fleshed out extremely well and her relationship with Hampton indicates that Johnson was a strong woman who wants to stand with Hampton but also will tell him when he isn’t as good as he could be. Fishback hits every note perfectly and is as charismatic as Kaluuya. Their chemistry makes the final tragic moments of the film even more painstaking.
The film does have a few issues with its historical accuracy of certain details; O’Neal has stated it was fairly easy to get close to Hampton where the film says it was difficult. The writers also took some liberties regarding O’Neal’s relationship with Mitchell. Hampton and O’Neal are not accurately represented in the film as the former was 21 and the latter was 17. Stanfield and Kaluuya are 29 and 31, respectively, which may seem a little jarring as neither actor feels the age that the two men really were.
Additionally, in real life, Hampton did open his eyes when the building was raided but still keeps this scene simple. Instead of a big climactic scene with FBI agents running in guns blazing, the film shows him sleeping. By keeping Hampton sleeping when he is killed, (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the film seems to parallel Fred Hampton’s murder with the infamous killing of Breanna Taylor in 2020. The final flaw is in showing how the FBI was involved. Though purposeful, it can take away a little from the film’s overall pacing.
Judas and the Black Messiah succeeds with its story, the acting, the ending, its message, and the majority of its details. The performances by the entire cast alone is reason enough to watch this movie multiple times. The film highlights how citizens can be manipulated or influenced to turn on their fellow citizens with use of propaganda and other tactics. Will society continue to allow this to happen or will they stand up and fight? That is up to the viewer to decide.
Judas and the Black Messiah was released in theaters where theaters are open, and is available to stream on HBO Max.
Recommendation: STREAM IT