How does a filmmaker reckon with the unjust death of Fred Hampton? The Black Panther Party deputy chairman was killed in his sleep in 1969, at age 21, by Chicago police in conjunction with the FBI.
Director Shaka King focuses on Hampton’s words and revolutionary beliefs in his film “Judas and the Black Messiah,” crafting an inspiring portrait of the young activist, paired with an examination of the FBI’s insidious cultivation of informer William O’Neal, who was integral to the agency’s surveillance and assassination of Hampton.
King’s dual focus and stylish cinematic approach make for a biopic that is at once rousing, maddening and desperately tragic.
Daniel Kaluuya is transformed and riveting as Hampton; it’s hard to imagine a better performance by an actor this year. His cadence and speech patterns, especially in his public speaking, are a blend of preaching, proselytizing and poetry, his vocal rhythms swinging from rat-a-tat to rock steady.
King and his co-writer Will Berson (the story is by Keith and Kenneth Lucas) have crafted an intimate portrayal of Hampton’s life and work that pairs his fiery speeches with tender moments of his relationship with fellow activist and Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who was nine months’ pregnant when Hampton died.
For all his talk of taking up arms in the fight for racial justice, Hampton’s actions are focused on community building: free breakfasts, medical clinics, bringing together the Panthers with racially diverse groups to speak out against police brutality.
His Judas is the apolitical O’Neal, played by the great LaKeith Stanfield, an actor who easily conveys a deep sense of inner turmoil, and who has the tricky task of a double performance, playing O’Neal’s own pretending to be a revolutionary. O’Neal is caught using a fake FBI badge to steal cars (because “a badge is scarier than a gun”). Rather than go to prison, he takes a deal to become an FBI informer, infiltrating the Panthers and becoming Hampton’s security man and driver, delivering information to FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who keeps a tight grip on O’Neal with money and threats.
Both O’Neal and Hampton are victims of American racist oppression, but while O’Neal is just trying to survive within the system, Hampton, in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, has made peace with his own self-sacrifice in order to dream of a different world.
“You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder the revolution. You can murder a freedom-fighter, but you can’t murder freedom,” he exhorts his followers, becoming the true “Black Messiah” that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) has feared he would be.