Director Shaka King breaks out of TV and onto the big screen with Judas and the Black Messiah. This (literally) incendiary film tells the somewhat overlooked story of Fred Hampton, the charismatic leader of a Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. Unlike others involve in the civil rights movement – like Dr Martin Luther King Jr or Malcolm X – Hampton is a more difficult figure to pin down. That could be due in part to the fact his life was cut tragically short.
King focuses on a small segment of Hampton’s life, basically covering his last few months. He cleverly builds out the film by dropping in details that give a fuller picture of the man and his work. These include Hampton’s community outreach efforts, and his efforts to improve the lives of Black people in Chicago. The film becomes a little fuzzier though when it comes to his broader goals and tactics.
The film opens in 1969, with America in upheaval. A small-time hustler named William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) has been arrested after stealing a car. But because he impersonated an FBI agent to do it, that lands him in trouble with the Feds. Real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers O’Neal an out. He can stay out of jail, if he infiltrates the Illinois Black Panthers and feeds intelligence back to Mitchell. Cornered, O’Neal takes the deal. He soon ingratiates himself into the Panthers – and eventually into the inner circle of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Hampton is a skilled orator and his impassioned speeches energise his audience. He’s also won the heart of fellow activist Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). But his efforts go beyond mere rhetoric. He’s instituted a free breakfast program for neighbourhood kids. His words have brokered a coalition between disparate groups. And he has grander plans. Some of Hampton’s fellow Panthers however are wary of O’Neal. But O’Neal uses his street smarts to pass their tests of loyalty and eventually win their trust. His information however allows Mitchell and the FBI to close in on Hampton.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an ambitious, even sprawling, film. Even at over 2 hours long, it barely scratches the surface of the subject matter – which extends well beyond the relationship between Hampton and O’Neal. I suspect the film might once have been even longer. A few characters drop in and out, and a few storylines seem to fade out – sometimes indicating over-judicious editing. So I found parts of it difficult to follow. I also query the film’s rather diffident attitude to Hampton’s stance on violence. While it depicts violence on both sides, Hampton himself is shown as almost impervious to it. While the Panthers are clearly heavily armed, Hampton himself never picks up a gun. He talks about killing in a speech, but then the film clumsily tries to walk his statements back in a later scene. By contrast, the FBI (with the possible exception of Mitchell) and cops are shown as almost cartoonish villains.
Daniel Kaluuya (Queen & Slim) – who bears quite a resemblance to the real Hampton – finds arguably the role of a lifetime here. His soliloquies dominate the film, providing both voice to, and context for, Hampton’s philosophy. It’s a bravura performance sure to garner plenty of attention in the coming awards season. LaKeith Stanfield (Knives Out) is far more understated – for obvious reasons – but delivers some standout scenes. Jesse Plemons (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) impresses too, even though his character mostly disappears in the third act. Dominique Fishback (Project Power) lends solid support as Deborah, as does Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) as the dangerous Jimmy Palmer. Though veteran Martin Sheen isn’t well-served by the make-up department as a rather grotesque J. Edgar Hoover.
While it may have a few flaws, Judas and the Black Messiah nonetheless delivers a powerful story in an engaging way. And Daniel Kaluuya’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television