Judas and the Black Messiah: a sleek, exciting look into the life and death of Fred Hampton

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) are joined by fellow Panthers for a late-night ride. The film is filled with strong performances, with the two leads delivering the expected knock-outs. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

I love film as education. Though as audiences we should be careful to accept as truth those works that ultimately present themselves as fiction, they can no doubt be fantastic catalysts for further edification. And, I will be honest: before this year, I had never before heard of Fred Hampton, my only inkling of an overture being his minor role in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

After having now seen Judas and the Black Messiah, I am disappointed in myself as both a leftist and anti-fascist for my ignorance. How could I not have known the incredible story of this man, my dear political predecessor? Thankfully, Judas did not leave me sulking. It is an absolutely exciting tale, one that has energized me for further learning. Spoilers below:

Judas and the Black Messiah is the story of Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty criminal turned FBI informant who is hired to infiltrate the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, which is under the chairmanship of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). It is a tragic tale, depicting both the impact of O’Neal’s duplicity on his own mental health, as well as the intimate life that Hampton led before his untimely end.

Stanfield and Kaluuya deliver their typical knock-out performances, and are surrounded by a supporting cast of heavy-hitters (Martin Sheen, though in bad make-up, is certainly adequate). Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is sleek, Kristan Sprague’s editing is on-point, and the film’s soundtrack serves it well. Indeed, all aspects that go into filmmaking, from A to Z, are above-par here in Judas, and their culmination is the product of the movie’s greatest highlight: Shaka King’s direction. King has given the world a work of art that is as educational as it is exciting, rife with themes on character and the nature of revolutions. For so many parts to come together so well is a credit to his talent.

In spite of playing a little fast-and-loose with the timeline of its events, Judas explores the context of its story with great depth, careful not to make monoliths of any of its subjects, Black or white. This point comes off well-enough when some African-Americans reject Hampton’s clarion, but the stand-out example is Chairman Fred’s appeal to the Young Patriots Organization. Although another leftist group, the Patriots rally before a Confederate flag, drawing out contempt from some Panthers who hurl out insults to the whites, similar in breadth to those harbored against Blacks. Cooler heads prevail, however, as Hampton establishes their common ground. This, and so much more of the film, is true-to-history nuance that elevates it from any less-intriguing story it could have been.

However, for as developed as the plot is, the arc of our main characters seems terribly stunted. These script deficits are terribly apparent by the film’s third act, where it is either a lack of growth (O’Neal) or a failure to ramp up the dramatic tenor (Hampton) that brings the story to a slogging pace before its violent ending.

Among its many topics, Judas concerns itself with the necessity of discipline, a virtue which the informant O’Neal is dreadfully lacking.His unchecked greed drives him to a life of crime, and he is sure to follow through on his first impulses, which are always self-preserving. He is selfish, and his relationships are shallow, and while O’Neal’s double-life does come to take its toll on him mentally, it is not so much out of guilt but out of fear. His turmoil is personal, not interpersonal. Though he comes to be trusted by Hampton and the Panthers, he does not bond with them, thus the gravity of his betrayal is not pulled by his character, but by the spectacle that is found elsewhere in the filmmaking.

By contrast, Hampton engages in several emotional exchanges before his tragic death. Recently released from prison, Hampton emerges more militant than ever. But his drive is complicated by multiple factors, namely the pregnancy of his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson. So, Chairman Fred relaxes his tactics, and instead refocuses on community reform. This is a far-cry from the Fred we saw at the film’s beginning, who denounced incremental change when compared to sudden revolution. Any reflection that Hampton might have on this character shift is played terribly subdued and not at all punctuated with any power or definitiveness. In some ways, audiences might be left to think that by easing his rhetoric (forgoing his discipline), then Hampton incurred his own demise. It’s a message that is as difficult to grapple with as it is to suss out of the writing, if there at all.

But, these are minor flaws for a film so thrilling as Judas and the Black Messiah. The film looks damn good, and the actors are damn fine, carrying the project past these shortcomings to a satisfying end. If you’re looking for an introduction to Hampton, the Panthers, or the nefarious nature of the FBI, then Judas won’t let you down.

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