Daniel Kaluuya is sensational as freedom fighter Fred Hampton in Shaka King’s insightful sophomore feature.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)
A new day beckons for America with the inauguration of a new administration in the White House. But amid ongoing racial tensions across the country, Hollywood continues to caution us about the history of oppression from the nation’s highest offices. In particular, filmmakers have lately taken aim at the FBI’s targeted character assassinations – and in some cases, literal assassinations – of prominent Black figures who dared to speak out against racial injustice. Indeed, early 2021 will see the release of MLK/FBI, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday and now, Shaka King‘s Judas and the Black Messiah. This engrossing period piece revisits the struggles of the 1960s Black Panther Party, as experienced by one of its ill-fated leaders Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the FBI informant (Lakeith Stanfield) who helped to bring him down.
The story unfolds in Chicago, where Fred Hampton presides as chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. A talented organizer, he rallies support for a socialist movement to combat the oppression of minority groups across all color lines. Though his radical views cause friction with other activist groups, support for his cause is growing, which attracts the attention of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the FBI. Fearing the rise of a “Black Messiah” who will overturn the social hierarchy, the FBI makes a deal with a petty thief named William O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panthers as an informant. Under close watch by his FBI agent, O’Neal becomes embroiled in Hampton’s inner circle as security captain. But as he learns the truth about the party’s mission, he begins to question where his loyalties really lie.
O’Neal’s journey is a fascinating one, as we meet him as a petty thief with little care for the politics of social justice, all the way through to his enlightenment as an active player for both sides of the struggle. And Stanfield is perfectly cast in the role, using his jittery energy to show O’Neal’s inner turmoil and able to change his demeanor at the drop of a hat. In fact, the entire supporting cast is compelling, notably Dominique Jackson as Hamilton’s concerned wife and an unnervingly calm Jesse Plemons as O’Neal’s handler. Meanwhile, it seems like nearly the entire makeup budget was used to transform Sheen into a monstrous version of himself to play the villainous J. Edgar Hoover.
But it’s Kaluuya’s incendiary performance as Hampton that provides the main attraction. Kaluuya completely embodies Hampton’s magnetic qualities – the captivating cadence of an evangelizing preacher, the wisdom of a teacher, and the rousing passion of an effective leader. And the insightful screenplay gives him many opportunities to shine, through several riveting rallies and meetings that demonstrate his controversial socialist ideology surrounding racial equality, including his support for armed resistance. Indeed, King never shies away from the violence inflicted by and against the Black Panthers, crafting several viscerally intense shootouts.
In that regard, one of the most profound lines comes from one of the minor characters. In the aftermath of the killing of a young Black Panther named Jake, his mother laments that her son would only be remembered for his violence. She says, “He did that. But that ain’t all he did… it don’t seem fair that that’s his legacy.”
It’s these words that exemplify the complexities informing both the filmmaking and the overall message. While many may still disagree with the Panthers’ use of violence (the FBI even likens them to the KKK), Judas and the Black Messiah defiantly serves to reclaim the narrative of both Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. The juxtaposition of bravura action scenes with comparatively pedestrian procedural scenes is therefore effective in fully understanding the strategies used on both sides. The various dirty tactics employed by the FBI will likely leave you infuriated. And in the case of the Panthers, their community-building efforts (the breakfast program and healthcare initiatives) emerge as equally important as violent protest.
Indeed, aside from its considerable entertainment value, Judas and the Black Messiah offers a valuable primer on what the Black Panther Party stood for. As Hampton explains during a particularly divisive speech, a true revolution requires a commitment to live – and if necessary, die for the cause – rather than merely relying on often inconsequential statements like wearing a dashiki. Indeed, at a time when Marvel’s fictional Black Panther arguably promoted Pan-Africanism and Black power as a commercialized fad, Judas and the Black Messiah is a vital character study that reminds us what it truly means to be a Black Panther and a revolutionary.
Judas and the Black Messiah comes to theaters and HBO Max February 12th.