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February 12, 2021


written by: Will Berson and Shaka King
produced by: Charles D. King, Ryan Coogler and Shaka King
directed by: Shaka King
rating: R (for violence and pervasive language)
runtime: 126 min.
U.S. release date: February 12, 2021 (theaters and HBO Max)


Fred Hampton was portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a small role last year in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of Chicago 7”, but now the one-time leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party is front and center in “Judas and the Black Messiah”, a sweeping and absorbing drama from writer/director Shaka King. Feeling far less like a typical biopic and more like an homage to something from Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, and while a movie focused on Hampton has been in development for years, the timing seems right for Warner Bros. Pictures to release it now considering the ongoing dialogue about civil unrest and racial injustice within the past year.

The feature sheds light on a turn of events that most viewers probably aren’t aware of, while touching on who Hampton was and what he did. But, more importantly how the F.B.I. went out of their way to bring the revolutionary black activist down and quash the growing movement he cultivated.

The character that inadvertently guides us into the tense atmosphere of Chicago circa 1968 is Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a small-time criminal who’s apprehended for impersonating an FBI agent while attempting to steal a car. This is how he crosses paths with actual FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who before offering O’Neal a chance to avoid jail, asks him why he used a fake badge instead of a real gun. O’Neal’s response, that a badge is scarier and any dude can get a gun, speaks volumes to the climate then and sadly seems timeless. Mitchell offers him a deal to avoid six and a half years behind bars: infiltrate the Chicago Black Panthers Party as an informant and get close to its charismatic chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), since FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), considers him a threat to life according to white Americans at the time.



While undercover, O’Neal gets close to Hampton and other high ranking officials, such as Bobby Rush (Darrell Britt-Garson), Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders), Judy Harmon (Dominique Thorn), Jake Winters (Algee Smith), and Mark Clark (Jermaine Fowler), while winning over their trust, earning the nickname “Wild Bill” due to his boldness and confidence under pressure. O’Neal witnesses the organization’s plan to support the black communities on the South and West sides of the Windy City, such as ensuring every family is fed or providing fee medical care and education. He watches as a persuasive Hampton seeks to unite local gangs in order to meet the needs of more people and recruits disenfranchised whites and Puerto Ricans to the party’s cause.

Hampton’s popularity on the street grows as his outspoken rhetoric and anti-capitalist speeches threaten Hoover and his white supremacist supporters. Hampton’s is rallied by his own supporters, who convene at the Black Panther Party headquarters, which is where Deborah (Dominique Fishback), a poet who is moved by Hampton’s words and compelled to volunteer to write for him. The two circle each other and gradually fall in love, during a tumultuous environment where the Chicago Police Department and the organization’s Rainbow Coalition increasingly clash.



Throughout it all, the pressure Mitchell applies to O’Neal becomes too much for the informant to bear and he becomes understandably paranoid, overwhelmed, and uneasy. Eventually, the police and FBI become the real threats for anyone involved in the Black Panther Party, and inevitable and tragic fatalities stain all involved.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” opens and closes with footage from a 1989 documentary “Eyes on the Prize 2”, in which O’Neal was interviewed primarily for his time with the Black Panthers and his part bringing down Hampton. O’Neal is indeed the most complex and dramatic character to follow in the movie, reeled in by the FBI and forced to play the part in a convincing manner while never really adapting any real allegiances to Hampton’s cause. It’s not a surprise that a year later in 1990, O’Neal wound up committing suicide wracked by guilt over his involvement.

As the title suggests, the screenplay by King and Will Bearson follows both men as they navigate through a volatile year. The main difference between the two is that Hampton is following his own path with a clear goal, whereas O’Neal is in a situation where he has to follow with what’s being asking of him in order to avoid jail time. Granted, the movie does offer more of Stanfield’s “Judas” than it does Kaluuya’s “Black Messiah”, but that’s because the stakes are greater for O’Neal. He could be found out by the Panthers or the Feds could decide to just scrape it up and send him to prison, either way he doesn’t have much control over what direction his life is going.



This makes for a compelling character study and Stanfield – who is typically mesmerizing in everything (actually, it feels like he’s in everything) – as this outsider is accepted all while wanting to get out as his guilt increases. At first, it feels like Mitchell is showing genuine interest in O’Neal as a person, inviting him into his home and building a rapport over drinks and dinner, but it doesn’t take long to see how the pressure from Hoover changes their dynamic. Stanfield’s nervousness and inner turmoil is palpable, struggling with the trust Hampton offers him and wrestling with the feelings of worth from Mitchell. The actor’s expressive eyes speak volumes in just about every frame.

As Hampton, Kaluuya effortlessly earns the attention of viewers, injecting to King’s movie an aspirational man of great energy, yet there are also quieter moments here the actor shines. His best scenes are indeed quiet ones with the splendid Fishback (who was a standout in last summer’s Netflix action flick, “Project Power”), in which his character is humanized in a more relatable way than the calculated and boisterous speaker audiences are used to. Another standout quiet scene is one in which Hampton visits the home of a slain Panther’s mother. Kaluuya listens and takes in how Hampton is looking at another perspective and perhaps thinking about how he soon will be a parent as well. While such scenes are integral in adding layers to Hampton, it’s also obvious that “Judas and the Black Messiah” isn’t really delving into Hampton’s philosophies and ideologies or even any motivations beyond helping his people and community. In that sense, the movie serves to pique the curiosity of the audience, maybe hoping they’ll go seek out more details about what went down in real life.



Veteran actor Sheen is really only given opportunities to preen before an assembly of young FBI agents or smugly intimidate Plemmons’ Roy as Hoover. While his make-up is slightly better than DiCaprio’s in Eastwood’s “J. Edgar”, it’s still a distracting look and a strangely broad, mustache-twirling performance in a film that really doesn’t require one. The power and influence of Hoover’s position is evident in and of itself, so there’s no need to emphasize the antagonist any here.

King, who had previously helmed celebrated indies such as “Newlyweeds” and “Shrill”, has an assured hand here and is supported by some fine cinematography from Sean Bobbitt (a frequent collaborator of Steve McQueen) and stellar production design from Sam Lisenco (who worked on the Safdie Brothers last two films). The movie may have been shot in Cleveland back in 2019, but at just about every turn the setting does feel like Chicago in the late 60s. The movie successfully captures a challenging balance between those who have less and are fighting for the same opportunities in America as those who have been in power for a long, long time.



RATING: ***1/2



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