‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Looks Back With Riveting Force at the Final Days of Black Panther Revolutionary Fred Hampton
“Judas and the Black Messiah” looks back at a particular moment in time when a generation was swept up in the fervor of a revolutionary epoch. Today we live in an era of renewed activism, but in the ‘60s a figure like Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, terrified the FBI because of his expanding message of general radical social change at every level. This made him an immediate target of the bureau’s infamous COINTELPRO operation against dissidents, and the eventual victim of a raid resulting in his assassination in 1969. Director Shaka King captures the charisma and force of Hampton’s presence through a blisteringly brilliant performance by Daniel Kaluuya, while tracing his final days through the eyes of an infiltrator, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).
“It was humbling. I felt honored. When I took in the scope of his concepts and beliefs, his love for the people, I felt honored to step into this narrative and continue Hampton’s legacy,” Kaluuya told Entertainment Voice. When the film begins O’Neal is a car thief posing as an FBI agent. When he’s arrested the real FBI, represented by Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), offers O’Neal a chance to wipe his record clean if he agrees to infiltrate the Panthers and get close to Hampton (Kaluuya). COINTELPRO is being unleashed full force by the bureau’s rabid director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who warns agents that Hampton, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. before him, represents the threat of a “Black messiah.” Making Hoover even more paranoid is the fact that Hampton openly advocates for revolutionary socialism, quoting Che Guevara at meetings and going beyond civil rights, engaging poor white communities to band together with the Black working class against capitalism. But as O’Neal becomes absorbed by the Black Panther underground and the cause, his conscience weighs heavy.
The beating heart of “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the charismatic performance by Kaluuya, which grips every frame with his understanding of how Hampton appealed to the masses. He takes the stage at any gathering with passion, speaking directly and frankly. When Chicago students gleefully announce a college will be named after Malcolm X, Hampton warns them of their naivety. For him once the rulers start patting you on the head then the revolution is dead. And as long as the country’s wide social inequality is not addressed, then the movement can only go so far. Kaluuya captures that mixture of seriousness and radicalism in a true believer. Hampton is not posing and is absorbed by his work 24 hours a day. Kaluuya develops a potent cadence in his speech rhythms, erupting onstage. When Hampton falls for a fellow activist, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), she tries to make him more conscience of poetry and how a literary touch can add a subtly to his speeches that might make him less incendiary. “I felt when challenging Chairman Fred that he had an internal revolution going on,” said Kaluuya, “He was free within his own mind, his own soul. He wanted to give the people the tools to free themselves with education, food, legal aid and other strategies the Panthers put in place to promote internal liberation as well as community union.”
“What sealed the deal for me were his words,” said Shaka King while discussing the movie with Entertainment Voice. “Reading his words, they were just incredibly profound, always relevant. He was able to take these concepts that academics and scholars sometimes make sound way more complicated than they are.” Through Hampton the screenplay by King and Will Berson reaches back into a moment of the Black liberation movement usually relegated to documentaries. Only a few dramas, like Mario Van Peebles’ “Panther,” have touched on the history of this militant angle of the civil rights era. Hampton was tapping into the worldwide feel of a generation stirred by the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War and the anti-colonial struggles in Africa. In a scene full of sobering insight, he walks into a meeting of low-income whites with a Confederate flag behind the speakers’ podium, but he clearly reaches them with his dialogue about the poor in general being oppressed by the same interests. Mitchell tries to convince O’Neal this is essentially a Black equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan in a classic fear-mongering tactic. “Hampton had this incredible ability to draw parallels to things that are very relatable. He was an incredibly relatable person. It’s rare to have leaders who have that combination, of being relatable while seeming to be superhuman. I combined that with the original concept of the script, which was ‘The Departed’ meets the world of COINTELPRO.’”
“Judas and the Black Messiah” combines exciting filmmaking with its deeper historical resonance. It moves with the rhythm of a thriller as O’Neal plays two sides. With Hampton he feels the stirring power of being part of the Panthers, watching the natural leader try to bridge gaps with other local Chicago organizations. But he is always aware Mitchell is waiting for information and with easy money. Jesse Plemons and LaKeith Stanfield perform a duo with its own, strange tension. Plemons’ Mitchell is careful not to speak like a reactionary, insisting he supports civil rights, just not violence, especially of a Black Marxist kind. He’s never as open as his boss, Hoover, who avidly asks Mitchell how he would react if his daughter ever brought a Black boyfriend home. O’Neal can’t resist the perks being a collaborator brings him, but his soul is crushed by knowing he’s bringing the feds closer to finally silencing Hampton. King also re-creates an interview the real O’Neal gave for the documentary “Eyes on the Prize 2,” where he insists he feels no remorse over his actions. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt mixes a documentary realism with a gritty elegance that makes Hampton seem both mythic and tragic.
“At first I thought, ‘I can’t play this person, no way, I hate this guy,’” said Stanfield to Entertainment Voice about first considering the role, “But as we progressed and after watching ‘Eyes on the Prize 2,’ I got a sense that a lot of the exterior bravado he was showing was secondary to what you could sense in-between the words. There’s this sense of regret, of knowing he did something wrong. So I went into the character thinking I would take that sliver of insecurity to bring him to life. I wanted to explore what his fears were and make him more relatable to me and to people.” O’Neal is essentially trapped in a growing nightmare where duty to Mitchell clashes with his growing attachment to Hampton. He tries to lure the chairman into saying something incriminating into a wiretap, but when he fails he seems tortured, alone in his car, as if he just wants to get it over with. “I was trying to find the balance of Shaka,” said Stanfield. “It was about just how crazy should I make him in any moment and Shaka would help me fine-tune it. I also had an internal conflict with the character the whole time, because I was conflicted about what he was doing. You can see that working in the character. When I’m in the apartment trying to see how I can poison Fred for the FBI, I felt sick that day in real life.”
The final moments of “Judas and the Black Messiah” are wrenching and infuriating as King meticulously re-creates the notorious raid during which Hampton was assassinated by agents in trench coats. Not only is it an important dramatization of a true event, but it brings home the violence of state terror. Per this film, Hampton believed in armed militancy, but not the use of terrorism. What frightened the FBI, and the Chicago police who violently collaborated as well, was how he promoted the downfall of the old racist social order by bringing together the poor of any background. King shows Hampton spending more time giving talks and running local community schools than actually brandishing a weapon. Kaluuya plays him with a great intelligence, which in the end is what makes any great leader truly a threat. “For me this was a microcosm of what’s been done for centuries,” said Kaluuya, “It’s the destruction of necessary healing from the powers that be. I just saw that in this story. I felt this was an opportunity to make a film that connects on a real level. I wanted to see the world through Fred’s eyes, not at him, but through him. I didn’t feel fear, to be real honest.”
“Judas and the Black Messiah” releases Feb. 12 on HBO Max and select cities.