Judas and the Black Messiah takes you into the tragic true story of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and William O’Neal’s lives.
Judas and the Black Messiah is set in 1969 and revolves around William O’Neal (Laketih Stanfield), a thief from Chicago with a couple of dealings and a good get-up. He wears a trench coat and poses as an FBI agent, flashing a fake badge to scare people into giving up their cars. One night, he is caught and taken to an FBI agent who offers him a chance to go home. But there is a catch. He’s asked to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, which is targeted by the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who proclaims them to be the biggest threat to American society.
The Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party is led by chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). After some time passes, O’Neil becomes the chapter’s head of security, but he reports his discoveries to the FBI behind their back. However, as time passes, he sees that the Black Panthers are doing a lot of good for the community, which puts him in a morally complex position between the balance of righteousness. The film recounts not only Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also the man behind the betrayal.
Judas and the Black Messiah highlights the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both roles, of both Hampton (the Black Messiah) and O’Neal (his Judas). The film goes between O’Neal’s interactions with the FBI and the Black Panther Party. He risks his life if someone discovers his identity and his mission. It gives a closer look at O’Neal from the moment he’s set up with the FBI to the night of the murder of Fred Hampton. It offers truth instead of antagonizing him or placing him as a villain. The film humanizes O’Neal, thus putting the villain tag on the law enforcement officials and the FBI.
Kaluuya and Stanfield both emerged to rapid recognition due to the 2017 film Get Out. Since then, they have made each consecutive role their own, with Kaluuya giving outstanding performances in both Widows (2018) and Queen & Slim (2019), and Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You (2018) and Uncut Gems (2019). If you thought their performances were impressive in those films, then you’re in for quite a surprise. They deliver their best work to date here.
Both actors embody their characters to perfection. Daniel Kaluuya, as Fred Hampton, is electrifying. His performance gives you goosebumps because of how great it is. He disappears into the role entirely. Meanwhile, Stanfield is playing an “actor” of sorts. A chameleon-like slippery persona as he creeps into the Black Panther Party while trying to hold his life together in a battle of morality. Their performances are powerful, energetic, and just pure magnetic. They play complicated, fascinating, and deeply flawed people who are captivating to follow. Dominique Fishback also gives an excellent performance as Hampton’s eventual fiancée, Deborah Johnson.
Most people that come to see this film will know how the story ends, but even then, it will still shock you thanks to Shaka King’s screenplay and his direction of the film. King and co-writer Will Berson blend the perfect amount of exposition that it does not feel contrived or forced. The film loses momentum during the second act but ends with a riveting third act. Sean Bobbitt’s legendary work comes into play as the cinematography in this film is truly captivating. The cinematography also excels thanks to the smooth, stylish, and crisp editing by Kristin Sprague.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an intense yet captivating story about a pivotal loss of life in 1969. It is a gripping tale about betrayal, the Black Power movement, racism, police brutality, and a corrupt system of inequality. Shaka King makes this film unique because of the balance between humanity and the burden of responsibilities placed upon them. It is a film that will stick with audiences even after the credits roll. It is more than a character study, showing two dynamics: Hampton’s and O’Neal’s. The film is set way back in the late ’60s, but the problems that appeared then still exist today.
Director Shaka King has described the initial idea for the film as “The Departed (2006) inside the world of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program).” He thought it was a clever way to “sort of Trojan-horse a Fred Hampton biopic and introduce the world, you know, a great segment of the world who is unaware of who he was, and is highly unaware of the Panthers’ politics and ideology.”