Fred Hampton was a man with a bold, uncompromising vision. A vision, however, is nothing without the ability and will to act. So, at just 21 years of age, he chaired the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and made waves on a national scale as a revolutionary socialist.
But Hampton’s story was cut short by a hail of FBI gunfire. With the birth of his first child just weeks away, Hampton was drugged and murdered in his sleep. No, that’s not a spoiler, but it is a story known by far too few Americans. In the 51 years since his assassination, no filmmaker has tackled the ugly truth and put it before an audience, but finally a visionary has come along with just the will and ability to do so.
Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” is one of the most shocking studio releases in recent memory. King’s vision is uncompromising, with no attempt made to dull Hampton’s beliefs. If anything, they are emboldened and fleshed out well beyond the confines of racial conflict. Just like Hampton, King knows that racism can’t be destroyed without dismantling the system that allows racism to proliferate.
Films about social justice issues and civil rights movements are nothing new in Hollywood, but rarely has a struggle felt as raw or unfiltered as it does here. King doesn’t shy away from anything, detailing the creation of a “rainbow coalition” to “fight capitalism with anticapitalism,” addressing how wealth inequality and lack of educational opportunities are designed to inspire desperation and hatred, and showing that Hampton and the Black Panther Party were prepared to address every single systemic issue. The cherry on top is outright depicting the FBI as a gang of murderous thugs who burst into homes and spray machine guns as if they work for Al Capone. Jaws will undoubtedly hit the floor.
As Fred Hampton, star Daniel Kaluuya is a man on fire, prepared to turn to ash if it means never turning his back on his people. It’s his most transformative role to date, nailing Hampton’s look, voice and magnetic energy. It stands to be a career-defining turn for a 31-year-old actor who already has several such performances under his belt. The only thing missing is an Oscar on his mantle.
Opposite Kaluuya is Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal. We aren’t given a ton of insight to O’Neal’s inner struggle because most of the conflict is played out right on Stanfield’s face. His entire situation is precipitated by poverty, forced into the positions of both perpetrator and victim, and the tightrope between hate and empathy is walked with precision by King, Stanfield and the film’s brutal screenplay. When all is said and done, the FBI killed William O’Neal just as much as they murdered Hampton. “Judas” asks if it is worse to die in a flash of violence while staying true, or better to live at the cost of identity and humanity?
While King’s direction feels shaded by other directors – from Scorsese to Spike – his vision is totally singular. It would have been easy to have a crime saga like this imitate “The Godfather” or “The Departed,” or draw from the wealth of traumatic Black stories we’ve seen over the years, but King remains bold and imaginative. It’s an impressive display of confidence for a filmmaker whose only prior feature film was released almost eight years ago.
The film is propulsive and never loses focus, despite constantly shifting perspectives – literally and thematically. It all clocks in at just over two hours, but still feels like a true historical epic, which can also be attributed to the wider supporting cast of Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Ashton Sanders and Algee Smith. Fishback as Deborah Johnson is particularly impressive, playing Hampton’s fellow Black Panther and eventual partner. Their love story offers moments of tender respite in an otherwise cruel story, and Fishback will certainly be a performer to watch in years to come.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the apotheosis of what a film should be in 2021.They say no year is a bad year for movies, but due to an array of circumstances, 2020 was decidedly underwhelming across the board. Now, 2021 is getting us right back on track with a tour de force that tackles every social, political and economic issue that has come to the forefront of American society in the last year. From Sean Bobbitt’s dynamic, lush photography to the best ensemble of the last year, “Judas and the Black Messiah” finally etches the tragedy of Fred Hampton in celluloid for us to revisit and revere for years to come.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."