Merely a throwaway figure in Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix film ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ from 2020, Black Panther Party revolutionary Fred Hampton stands front and centre in Shaka King’s directorial feature debut ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’.
The movie — which plays out like a tense thriller — shines light on the last year or so in the life of Hampton, the chairman of the Panthers’ Illinois chapter, only all of 21 when he was horrifically shot down by the FBI. Brought to life by Daniel Kaluuya (‘Get Out’, ‘Black Panther’), the charismatic leader’s attempts to bring cross-cultural and cross-racial solidarity against an imperialist and racist power structure makes for a riveting and at-times sobering watch.
But this is not the story of just one man. The eponymous Judas of this story is Bill O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield of ‘Atlanta’ fame. A car thief posing as an FBI agent, O’ Neal is caught by the very people he sought to impersonate. Given a choice between prison time and embedding himself in the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant, O’Neal quickly chooses the latter option, and the rest of the film unfolds from his point of view.
This in itself is a masterful decision from director King. Stanfield’s increasingly nervous energy fills every scene, ramping up the tension of each moment. It’s a joy to behold the actor bring all of his vulnerability and insecurities to the forefront, a tragic unravelling from passive participant to a morally-confused back-stabber.
His FBI handler, Agent Roy Mitchell, is played by the terrific Jesse Plemmons, who is quickly becoming the go-to man for supporting character roles in Hollywood. The story progresses as Hampton builds his “Rainbow Coalition” of activist groups, which rankles FBI chief, the notorious J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who then tasks Mitchell to use his informant to eliminate the ‘threat’ posed by Hampton.
There’s also a strain of romance in the film, as Hampton and co-BPP member Deborah Jonson (played by Dominque Fishback with an achingly tender touch), meet, connect over their shared ideals and fall in love. In one of the movie’s most beautiful moments, the soft-spoken Johnson reads Hampton a poem she wrote for him, a poem that actually written by the actress herself. At the moment, Fishback’s character is pregnant with Hampton’s child, and the poem is as much filled with fear and worry as it is of acceptance.
But if you need one reason you need to watch this film, make it Kaluuya. The actor’s performance is a master class in motion. He channels Hampton’s chemistry in a controlled and measured manner that’s absolutely electric to behold. Early in the film, we see Hampton face down his doubts as a leader as he practices a Malcolm X speech while sizing himself in the mirror, probably falling short of the image he wants to see. The second half of the film focuses on Hampton’s activism and his rousing speeches after his release from prison. It rbings to the fore the politics of the Panther Party, usually used as a backdrop device in most movies of the time.
If I had one complaint of the movie, it would be that Kaluuya and Stanfield both look a little too old to be playing these characters. O’Neal was barely an adult at the time of the events and Hampton, a mere 21-year-old, when tragedy struck. Both actors look too mature to be playing out these young men’s fates, which can feel a little jarring and takes you out of the moment sometimes.
But all things said and done, given the historic significance of the story and it’s parallels with modern day America (Breonna Taylor, anyone?), it’s a wonder this film was not made sooner.
King’s film, a faithful retelling of the events by all accounts, also doesn’t shy away from showing the Panthers’ militancy and violence, making the story far more interesting than what otherwise could have been a watered-down version of a real-life story. ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is a call to revolution and it’s hard to not feel the pull.
Don’t miss it!
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is showing in UAE cinemas from February 18.