I’ve been excited for “Judas and the Black Messiah” since the first trailer premiered on Aug. 6, 2020. The powerful performances and heightened tension in the trailer made me want to see the movie immediately, and I shared it with everyone I knew. Unfortunately, I had to wait six months. That’s a long time to wait for a movie as good as “Judas and the Black Messiah.” But what is more upsetting is that it took 51 years before someone made a movie about Fred Hampton’s murder.
In the film, Daniel Kaluuya stars as Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. Hampton is a fascinating figure who defied the perceived image of a Black Panther. He fed local children breakfast every morning, built programs to educate people on the importance of political power, and brought together people of different backgrounds under a central cause. And he did all of this in his late teens and early twenties.
But his life was cut short by the U.S. government, which saw Hampton as a threat to America. To help them take down this rising political star, they enlisted Bill O’Neal, who infiltrated the Black Panther Party, learned as much as he could, and assisted in killing Hampton.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is ultimately a tale of betrayal not only of one man and another but a man and his country. Hampton was a complicated figure who made controversial statements, but he didn’t deserve to die. Honestly, had he risen up the party’s ranks, he could have continued to create lasting change. Yet his life was cut short by his Judas, O’Neal.
As I said before, I can’t believe that it took so long to make this film, but I’m thankful writer/director Shaka King and his writing team finally did. They made Hampton’s story compelling from beginning to untimely end while maintaining the historical truth. This contrasts significantly with “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” another Oscar-worthy film that changed history without appreciating the larger implications.
My initial perception of the film was that it would be a rolling train of fury that never slowed. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is actually a nuanced film that takes its time with the real-life individuals portrayed. By doing this, King succeeds in helping the audience feel more connected to these people. After seeing it once, I liked the film, but I appreciated the nuance even more the second time.
While King deserves most of the credit for writing and directing this brilliant film, he also has a stellar cast working alongside him. Kaluuya is a powerhouse. His performance is deeply passionate, and he speaks with fire in his voice, especially when he’s behind a pulpit. Yet Hampton was more than a political voice, and Kaluuya captures that perfectly in romantic scenes and when he is trying to reach individuals on a personal level. Shouting can be powerful, but empathy was Hampton’s greatest tool. Kaluuya understands that.
LaKeith Stanfield is equally great in his role as O’Neal, though his performance must be even more nuanced than Kaluuya’s because he’s playing on both sides of the party. His acting is convincing, but he sometimes crosses the line into looking too guilty as an informant. That said, it’s such a challenging position to be in as an actor because the audience knows he’s a mole, but no one else does. For that reason, the actor will always look like a liar because we know he is.
Beyond the two main actors in this film, everyone else is brilliant. Jesse Plemons as an FBI agent gives an understated but effective performance. Martin Sheen is nearly unrecognizable as J. Edgar Hoover, a casting choice that I love and hate. I love it because Sheen is such a talented actor, and he brings to the role criminal enthusiasm, but I hate it because this is also the man who brought to life one of the greatest TV presidents, so it’s hard to see him play Hoover.
I also want to mention Robert Longstreet, a great character actor, who stood out as a despicable FBI agent alongside Plemons. Finally, I have to mention actress Dominique Fishback, who deserves more attention for her performance as Hampton’s fiancee. I was especially impressed by her performance in a scene when she is watching Hampton speak about dying for the cause knowing full well that she is carrying his child. She tears up but quickly wipes away those tears because she believes she must stay strong for the party and her child. It’s a beautiful but devastating moment in the film.
The movie generally is devastating because it is a tale of betrayal, but it’s an important story shot beautifully. I loved “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and I hope this gives rise to more stories from modern history that have not yet been told on the big screen.