The story of the Black Panthers, particularly that of its Illinois Chairman Fred Hampton, hasn’t been as well-publicized in recent decades as it should. Take this writer for example, a white millennial (admittedly a year or so away from a GEN-Zer) from northern Michigan who was taught all throughout school about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for equality, leading to the Civil Rights Act. While not as familiar as Dr. King, leader Malcolm X was also a figure discussed in history classes, but often with framing that he was the “bad” seed between him and Dr. King. Also, the Denzel Washington/Spike Lee film was still somewhat fresh amid the culture at the time. I cannot even recall if I had ever been taught about the Black Panthers until I was in High School, when social media was in its birthing period, and the murder of Trayvon Martin ignited a modern revolution that was impossible to turn away from.
I’m writing this as an example of just how new these stories are to people and how important it is for future generations to receive the knowledge of the assassination of Fred Hampton at the hands of the FBI, and why a film such as this, put out by a major studio like WB, is so important. Especially when it’s a vital, breathtaking piece of cinema such as this.
In his first major studio feature, director Shaka King crafts this incendiary masterwork that seeks to reclaim the narrative of Hampton and the Black Panthers that has been stolen from them for so long. Part historical drama, political thriller and, like its title suggests, biblical tragedy, King swiftly paints the picture of rising tensions amid the late 1960’s. The FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen under some impressive make-up), sets their sights on the Black Panthers, deeming them the number one threat to national security. When slick car thief William O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield, in possibly his best performance) winds up in the hands of Agent Roy Mitchell (a reliably excellent Jesse Plemons), he’s turned into an FBI informant, tasked with infiltrating Hampton’s division of the Panthers. O’Neil, reluctant but ultimately willing to do the work, is assured by Mitchell that the Panthers and the KKK are “one in the same”, reinforcing that same tired talking point we still hear today. When O’Neil works his way into Hampton’s personal circle, eventually becoming his head of security, we witness the toll it takes on him, while also focusing on Hampton’s personal life.
Shaka King takes a pivotal moment in modern history, and treats it with the complexity and care it rightfully deserves. King, employing inspirations that echo the works of Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese, offers an energizing style and presentation of his own. The fluid camerawork — with the help of DP Sean Bobbitt — during a shootout at Panthers headquarters holds a tight grasp of tension that fails to release. In perhaps the most electrifying sequence, showing Hampton giving a fiery, impassioned speech (try not getting swept up in Kaluuya’s ferocious delivery of “I am a revolutionary”), the framing showcases Hampton on his podium preaching to a packed crowd like an actual messiah.
Daniel Kaluuya gives a career-defining performance that is both understated, while expertly portraying the roaring, larger-than-life presence of Fred Hampton. Kaluuya evokes the same magnetism that made Hampton such a compelling force, while giving the role nuance and vulnerability. Among the many elements thoroughly explored is Hampton’s personal life with his partner and the mother of his then-unborn child, Deborah, played with great warmth by Dominique Fishback. As Fred openly proclaims that he’s ready to die in the vein of Malcolm X and Dr. King, Deborah raises the point of wanting a life, a husband not a martyr. An element that feels almost influenced by The Last Temptation of Christ.
Lakeith Stanfield has never been better as William O’Neil, whose torment of betrayal lingers throughout his weighted performance. Stanfield delicately balances the complex nature of O’Neil’s actions and his mindset. On paper, this is not someone to root for, but Stanfield’s rich humanity gives life to the conflicting nature of the character.
Duality is a major thematic focus here, whether it be the opposite sides of morality, to its depiction of William O’Neil who represents a more capitalistic nature opposed to Hampton’s socialist ideals. King, and co-writer Will Berson, expertly explore these dense and intricate themes that permeate far after the film is over. The climax in particular, feels like a natural, haunting crescendo that further highlights the range of talent in filmmaker Shaka King.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a thrilling masterpiece that entertains, provokes and shatters in equal measure. A galvanizing call to arms that succeeds in shining a light into one of modern history’s most pivotal moments. This is a bold and scorching work of art that reclaims a narrative desperately needed right now. Revolutionary, indeed.