This movie works when Daniel Kaluuya is on screen. He’s electric as Frank Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, a man who could’ve risen to the likes of Malcom X or Martin Luther King had he not been tragically killed at the age of 21. However, Hampton plays a supporting role in the story of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” told instead through the actions of FBI informant Bill O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield) and his infiltration into the Black Panther Party.
Directed by Shaka King, “Judas and the Black Messiah” has an intoxicating beginning. We’re introduced to O’Neil after he’s arrested for a car theft gone wrong and immediately placed in a room with him and FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Mitchell offers O’Neil a choice: Go to jail for the stolen car, or become a double agent within the Black Panther Party. O’Neill chooses the latter and becomes the eponymous “Judas” of the story.
The “Messiah” is introduced in the next scene, where Fred Hampton gives a rousing speech to a group of Illinois college students. Here, we glimpse the film’s true potential. Kaluuya is a force as Hampton, delivering monologue after monologue that are both poetic and powerful. And despite a few lackluster moments in the script, King and co-writer Will Berson capture Hampton’s oratory skills masterfully, and showcase the ambitions of the young, black leader through his graceful rhetoric and consistent strive for peace among the people.
Yet, for a movie that should’ve been solely about Fred Hampton, he’s really not in it a whole lot. Instead, King focuses on O’Neil’s infiltration and the Black Panther party subjectively through his eyes. And although Lakeith Stanfield is fantastic as the ambivalent informant, we don’t get a whole lot of insight into the personal life of O’Neil. As a result, his internal struggle is difficult to track. This is surprising, as the real O’Neill was extremely conflicted about his involvement with the FBI and the Black Panthers, eventually taking his own life after revealing his life story in a PBS interview.
However, despite these inconsistencies, the film is still wildly entertaining. The conversations between Stanfield and Kaluuya burst with chemistry and supporting actors like Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, and Ashton Sanders give wonderful performances. King and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt deliver a beautiful, vibrant picture, specifically in their wide shots of Kaluuya speaking to crowds. There’s one scene in particular where Hampton gives his first speech after being released from prison. As he orates, the camera cuts between O’Neill, and Mitchell. O’Neill can’t hide his horror at seeing Mitchell in the crowd, but must remain calm given the circumstances. It’s dramatic irony at its best, and the scene is certainly my favorite in the film.
Also, it should be noted that this film’s release could not have been more poignant. The criminal depiction of the Black Panther Party through the eyes of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI seem eerily similar to depictions of the Black Lives Matter movement by certain news sources and elected leaders. The raid of Fred Hampton’s house tragically parallels the shooting of Breonna Taylor and other unarmed African-Americans.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” may not be best film of the year from a technical perspective, but it’s certainly the most important. And while Fred Hampton’s physical death proves yet another marker of the inequitable governance still running this country, it’s evident by this past summer and the rising strength of the BLM movement that his words are and will remain eternalized: you can murder a freedom fighter but you can’t murder freedom fighting.