“Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) who was the chairman of the Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party in the 1960’s. Hampton and the Black Panther Party become one of the key targets of investigation by the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), under the now infamous COINTELPRO directive that began in 1956. This was a program under the FBI designed to investigate, infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt domestic political organizations who championed civil rights that were deemed too radical according to the government. Some of the program’s tactics involved wire tapping, anonymous mailings, covert surveillance, illegal activity, police harassment & brutality, false imprisonment and even murder.
As the story unfolds, we witness Fred Hampton as a gifted speaker and leader to the party who is dedicated to building up and protecting his community. Hampton has the desire to build a community medical center, organizes breakfast programs for the youth, health clinics and free workshops for the community at large. Despite these beneficial programs and initiatives, Hampton is viewed as an immediate threat due to his ability to galvanize and organize alliances with other organizations, those regarded as “gangs.” These organizations consist of a white southern based group known as the “Young Patriots”, a Puerto Rican based group known as the “Young Lords”, and a fictionalized gang known as “The Crowns” which was the cinematic amalgamation of several different gangs that joined Hampton’s “Rainbow Coalition” in real life.
In an effort to get closer to Hampton, gain more intel and plot out his next move, an FBI agent (Jessie Plemmons) utilizes a recently arrested criminal named William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). O’Neil’s task is to infiltrate the Panthers’ ranks, win them over, and get close enough to Hampton to become one of his right hand men. O’Neil, who avoids prison for his own crimes and is paid as an informant for the agency, successfully infiltrates the ranks, even becoming the Party’s head of security for the Chicago Chapter. Through his knowledge of the inner workings of the Party, O’Neil feeds information to the FBI which allows them to pull off arrests, raids, and even murders of the associates who befriended and placed their trust in him.
Produced by Ryan Coogler, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the directorial debut of Shaka King who does a incredible job co-writing and directing the material presented here. The film was masterfully directed, beautifully shot, well scored, and features a slew of great lead & supporting performances throughout. At times it acts as a thriller, at other times like a cinematic documentary identifying the Panthers cause & struggle, and at other times, a short biographical character study of Hampton. All the while, the film never shys away from the internal challenges Hampton faced within the party and the lengths the FBI went to in order to infiltrate these organizations. The material here will take you through a range of feelings throughout, and though I was already familiar with the real life events that transpired, seeing them play out still hit me on an emotional level.
The last aspect of the film I have to point out is the performances on display by Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neil. All of the supporting cast do a wonderful job here, but simply put, Kaluuya and Stanfield give career best performances in these roles. Specifically regarding Daniel Kaluuya, he gets completely lost in the role of Fred Hampton and does an phenomenal job with his mannerisms, emotion, inflection, diction, intensity and overall presence in every scene he is in. Kaluuya’s performance is mesmerizing. Lakeith’s performance depicts his character’s inner struggle of toeing the line, becoming influenced by Hampton and wanting out of his situation, yet still willing to betray Hampton and the Panthers in an effort to free his own self from the FBI’s hold over him. Both men give powerhouse performances here and deserve the recognition that is sure to come their way.
Ironically enough, as the title states, this film tells the tale of the overarching story of betrayal that took place. While the film features the Black Panther Party and depicts the efforts of Fred Hampton, a large portion of the film centers around Lakeith’s character as he continues to rise in the ranks of the Party as a paid informant while attempting to convince the FBI to let him out. The movie doesn’t treat him as a sympathetic figure by any means, but does focus more on him than on Hampton as the center of the story. I can see how this could be viewed as dissapointing as an in-depth look at Hampton’s background, make up & ideology takes a back seat here in favor of the story of betrayal that ultimately led to the film’s outcome.
However, overall I feel “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a powerful & emotional film that provides a glimpse at this turbulent time in American history and displays this snapshot of the era with powerful performances, a sharply written screenplay, and superb direction by Shaka King. I highly recommend checking this film out if you haven’t already.