Following a fervent but brief portrayal by Kelvin Harrison Jr. in last year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Chairman Fred Hampton’s story is expanded in Warner Bros. Judas and the Black Messiah. Director Shaka King helms the film and collaborates on the screenplay with writers Will Benson and The Lucas Brothers.
William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) has spent his life as a career petty criminal. After attempting to steal a car by posing as a law enforcement member, William finds himself at the mercy of Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Roy convinces William to infiltrate the Illinois Black Panther Party and keep tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). If William cooperates, he will never see a day in jail, so naturally he complies. While learning the truth about the Panthers, O’Neal experiences a crisis of conscience. Should he align with the forces of good or subdue Hampton and The Panthers by any means, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) commands?
During the opening moments of Judas and the Black Messiah, the filmmakers recreated O’Neal’s 1990 “Eyes on the Prize” interview for PBS. I immediately knew that the film would find its way into my year’s ten best. As O’Neal, under impressive old man makeup up, Stanfield disappears into the role in his opening moments. There’s a pain in O’Neal’s eyes but no regret, thus validating the quote “Guilt is a rope that wears thin.” I’ve enjoyed Stanfield’s work since 2013’s Short Term 12 as the actor brings a different vibe to every role he portrays. Even with the disdain I have for the real-life William O’Neal, Stansfield’s performance is one that will stick with audiences for years to come.
British actor Daniel Kaluuya embodies the essence of Fred Hampton with his take on the historical figure. Judas and the Black Messiah’s script effortlessly humanizes Hampton and validates why he had such as gravitating presence. The film features scenes where Hampton reaches out to Black Chicago gang members, lower-income Whites, and the Hispanic community. All of whom are experiencing the same tribulations as Fred and the Panthers. Judas and the Black Messiah subtly portrays Hampton as he recruits followers and avoids giving the character plot armor.
Hampton’s political prowess grows just as he’s falling in love with fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson, played with a heartfelt aura by Dominique Fishback. The chemistry between her and Kaluuya is beautiful to see. One of my favorite moments in the film occurs after Deborah and Fred meet for the first time. Deborah didn’t expect Fred to come off as bashful when they were alone, given his robust attitude when giving a speech. The scene truly speaks to the power of a strong woman.
Judas and the Black Messiah also features a strong supporting cast. Under impressive prosthetics, Martin Sheen makes for a dastardly Edgar Hoover in his extended cameo. Sheen has a moment in the film where he interacts with Jesse Plemons, which speaks to how many still carry the same mindset today in their views towards African Americans. Plemons’s transition from portraying bullies as a child actor to his villainous turn as Todd in Breaking Bad has been great to watch. Plemons let me down with his appearance in last year’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but here he redeems himself. While Plemons never evokes the same evilness as Sheen’s Hoover, he successfully pulls off the role of a man who is just as much a pawn in Hoover’s game as William O’Neal.
I must also commend the screenplay for highlighting two lesser-known Black Panthers Larry Robinson and Jake Winters, played by Ashton Sanders and Algee Smith, both with natural confidence. Shaka King keeps the film moving along at a quick pace, and there was never a moment I found myself looking at my watch. If I did have one small criticism of the film, it would be the lack of Hampton’s story before joining the Panthers. However, knowing that Hampton’s estate was involved in making the film, I fully respect their wishes.
Judas and the Black Messiah is, without a doubt, one of the most influential pieces of cinema you will see in 2021. Featuring a tight script, impressive directing, and stellar acting from its cast, Judas and the Black Messiah provides justice to the chairman’s story.
Final Grade A+
Judas and the Black Messiah opens in theaters on Thursday February 11th.
The film will also stream exclusively on HBO MAX beginning Friday February 12th .