Judas And The Black Messiah

In theaters and streaming on HBOMAX beginning Feb. 12.

The Plot:

Chicago 1968 finds Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the Illinois Chairman of the Black Panther Party, speaking of revolution. His words gain the attention of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the FBI. Enlisting William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) to infiltrate Hampton’s inner circle in order to build a case to stop the Black Panther Party, O’Neal soon discovers that there are no safe spaces in a revolution.

Kent's Take:

“Judas & The Black Messiah” is a volatile film about a volatile time with volatile people — the Black Panther Party vs. the FBI.

Fred Hampton is a self-described revolutionary speaking of war vs. politics. “War is politics with bloodshed; politics is war without bloodshed.” He discusses revolution as opposed to “candy-coated gradual reform.” Fred Hampton is a stirring orator willing to become a martyr — a very dangerous man. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI are drunk with power and wield it with bully fists willing to shoot first, listen later — very dangerous men.

Writer/Director Shaka King tries to parallel our current political climate with that of the late 1960s, offering a stark contrast between authority and freedom fighters.

An interesting element to this film is the role Bill O’Neal plays in this story. O’Neal is forced into serving the FBI as an informant after he is caught

impersonating a federal agent. Initially, he is simply doing what he is told, but subsequently gravitates to the Black Panther’s way of thinking, seeing them as warriors rather than homegrown terrorists. King uses a masterful eye to direct this story, capturing the angst of the time, the feelings of betrayal and the unblinking eye of government oversight, but the use of O’Neal as a witness transformed is not enough to rouse viewers emotionally. His undercover role creates little tension within the film. We witness the injustice, but we are kept at arms length.

The acting performances are outstanding. Jesse Plemons makes the most of his bit part as FBI agent Roy Mitchell. LaKeith Stanfield creates a multi-faceted character as William O’Neal slowly transitioning from informer to informed. Dominique Fishback portraying Deborah Johnson, Fred Hampton’s lover, is both smooth and moving in her role as innocent witness to Hampton’s fatal call to action. Yet, for all these excellent performances, Daniel Kaluuya is a standout out for his memorable Fred Hampton. His rhythms, his aura, his inner fire leaps through the screen to capture viewers. Kaluuya’s performance elevates this film, making it worth a look.

“Judas & The Black Messiah” recounts a tumultuous time with a different faceted point of view — that of a grass roots revolutionary and martyr.

Lynn’s Take:

Fred Hampton’s words and deeds are as timely today as they were 52 years ago, as displayed in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” an intense look at how fear silenced an important voice in a movement for equality among races.

In an electric performance, Daniel Kaluuya illuminates the legacy of the passionate, outspoken activist who could energize a room. He gained attention through diplomacy, when he brought two rival gangs together to show that they all had the same goals.

The Chairman, as he is respectfully referred to, even today by those who knew him, attracted the wrath of bigoted, paranoid FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, hell-bent on destroying black leaders, fearing revolution that would give black communities a voice.

In yet another nuanced performance, LaKeith Stanfield is conflicted FBI informant William O’Neal, who begins to question his motives as he sees Fred in action, helping poor neighborhoods out. The Black Panthers saw themselves as making a difference but the FBI only viewed them as terrorists.

The outstanding ensemble includes Jesse Plemons as FBI field agent Roy Mitchell; Martin Sheen, in horrible makeup, as Hoover; and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Fred’s lover and mother of his only son, Fred Hampton Jr. 

Director Shaka King, who also co-wrote the script with Will Berson, shows what a powerful force Hampton was and the scope of his ideas. He balances the fiery rhetoric with a sweet enlightening romance with Deborah, who has the same convictions as Hampton and is a positive influence on him.

During the past decades, more has come out about the FBI manipulation, and what they are shown doing here will make viewers angry.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” depicts what happened as authentically as possible, although O’Neal is such a shady figure, it’s doubtful anyone knew the truth about him.

The script is incendiary, and one drawback is it is hard to keep the players straight at times, because the narrative is rather choppy. There is always more to the story but at least we get a good wrap-up from the film’s epilogue.

A kaleidoscope of 1960s art, music and fashion is on display, helping to frame its cultural impact.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is essential to understanding voices of dissent and gives us insight on the explosive changing times of the late 1960s.