‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ etches the tragedy of Fred Hampton for us to revisit and revere for years to come

 By Johnny Sobczak

February 12, 2021

Fred Hampton was a man with a bold and uncompromising vision. A vision, however, is nothing without the ability and will to act. So, at just 21 years of age, he chaired the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and made waves on a national scale as a revolutionary socialist. 

But Hampton’s story was cut short by a hail of FBI gunfire. With the birth of his first child just weeks away, Hampton was drugged and murdered in his sleep. No, that’s not a spoiler, but it is a tragic story known by far too few Americans. In the 51 years since his assassination, no filmmaker has tackled the ugly truth and put it before an audience, but finally a visionary has come along with just the will and ability to do so.

(L-R) Darrell Britt-Gibson as Bobby Rush, Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the most anticipated studio releases of the year. King’s vision is uncompromising, with no attempt made to dull Hampton’s beliefs. If anything, they are emboldened and fleshed out well beyond the confines of racial conflict. Just like Hampton, King knows that racism can’t be destroyed without dismantling the system that allows racism to proliferate.

Films about social justice issues and civil rights movements are nothing new in Hollywood, but rarely has a struggle felt as raw or unfiltered as it does here. King doesn’t shy away from anything, detailing the creation of a “Rainbow Coalition” to “fight capitalism with anti-capitalism,” addressing how wealth inequality and lack of educational opportunities are designed to inspire desperation and hatred. Hampton and the Black Panther Party were prepared to address every single systemic issue. 

(L-R) Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton, Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer, Algee Smith as Jake Winters, Dominique Thorne as Judy Harmon and Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

As Fred Hampton, star Daniel Kaluuya is a man on fire, prepared to turn to ash if it means never turning his back on his people. It’s his most transformative role to date, nailing Hampton’s look, voice and magnetic energy. It stands to be a career-defining turn for a 31-year-old actor who already has several such performances under his belt. The only thing missing is an Oscar on his mantle. 

Opposite Kaluuya is Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal. We aren’t given a ton of insight to O’Neal’s inner struggle because most of the conflict is played out right on Stanfield’s face. His entire situation is precipitated by poverty, forced into the positions of both perpetrator and victim. The tightrope between hate and empathy is walked with precision by King, Stanfield, and the film’s screenplay. 

Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

While King’s direction feels shaded by other directors– from Martin Scorsese to Spike Lee– his vision is totally singular. It would have been easy to have a crime saga like this imitate The Godfather or The Departed, or draw from the wealth of traumatic Black stories we’ve seen over the years, but King remains bold and imaginative. It’s an impressive display of confidence for a filmmaker whose only prior feature film was released almost eight years ago. 

The film is propulsive and never loses focus, despite constantly shifting perspectives– literally and thematically. It all clocks in at just over two hours, but still feels like a true historical epic, which can also be attributed to the wider supporting cast of Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Ashton Sanders and Algee Smith. Fishback as Deborah Johnson is particularly impressive, playing Hampton’s fellow Black Panther and eventual partner. Their love story offers moments of tender respite in an otherwise cruel story, and Fishback will certainly be a performer to watch in years to come.

(L-R) Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Judas and the Black Messiah is the apotheosis of what a film should be in 2021.They say no year is a bad year for movies, but due to an array of circumstances, 2020 was decidedly underwhelming across the board. Now, 2021 is getting us right back on track with a tour de force that tackles every social, political and economic issue that has come to the forefront of American society in the last year. From Sean Bobbitt’s dynamic, lush cinematography to the best ensemble of the last year, Judas and the Black Messiah etches the tragedy of Fred Hampton in celluloid for us to revisit and revere for years to come.

Watch the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah now streaming on HBO Max. Listen to the soundtrack featuring Jay-Z, Nipsey Hussle, Nas, H.E.R., Black Thought, Rapsody, Smino, Masego, JID, and more.

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