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In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” The Story of Chairman Fred Hampton Is Finally Done Justice

A Review and Conversation with the Stars of "Judas and the Black Messiah"

By Tony Gupta

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Judas and the Black Messiah is told from the perspective of the man who betrayed Fred Hampton. After all, most of the information made available on the Chairman was released by the FBI— the ones responsible for his assassination, one of the most insidious events of 20th-Century American history.

Set in the late 1960s, in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the FBI under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover is desperate to prevent the rise of what he deems a “Black Messiah.” As the title suggests, the film tells the story of Bill O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), who becomes our Judas. He's forced to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in order to gather intelligence on the group and its charismatic chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

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Kaluuya’s performance is nothing short of electrifying. Although perhaps not a perfect visual match for the 21-year-old Chairman, he replicates the young leader’s voice and movements with an uncanny degree of precision and power, giving every word Kaluuya speaks as Hampton a bone-chilling strength. Seriously. Search for a clip of the Chairman speaking on YouTube and compare it to Kaluuya’s performance. Goosebumps. Give the man his Academy Award.

Stanfield, too, delivers a convincing performance as O’Neal, switching from fear to exhilaration on a dime as the script demands. At first, this proved to be a difficult undertaking for Stanfield, who recalled an initial sense of dread and the feeling that “there’s no way I can play [O’Neal]. I hate this guy!” In conversation with Program Board, Stainfield revealed that this character “represents what a capitalist is, in terms of selfishness” to him. This persona was the antithesis of the roles that launched him to superstardom. The Lucas Brothers, responsible for the story concept, agreed with Stanfield’s initial estimation of Bill— in fact, that was the intended effect of rooting this story in his perspective: “Your instinct is to go, ‘fuck this guy’… [and then ask yourself] but what would I have done?” It was this sense of pragmatism and self-reflection, the realization that he was just a man trying to survive, that unlocked Stanfield’s ability to portray O’Neal.

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The supporting cast does a tremendous job fleshing out the Black Panther Party, and reminding viewers that this is not just a tale of two men, but of one an entire movement, a revolution that endures to this very day. Dominique Fishback (Project Power) delivers a stellar performance as Deborah Johnson as the film navigates her burgeoning romance with the Chairman. As she keeps him on his toes and their relationship progresses, his speeches become more powerful; they are imbued with a deep sense of humanism that comes to define the film more than one might expect. The fire of revolution is kept steady by the warmth of love. In one of the most intimate scenes of the film, we realize Chairman Fred was actually a very shy man, struggling to speak to Johnson. We asked Kaluuya about this aspect of Hampton’s personality: “Human beings and spirits are not just one thing … in order to register the confidence, you have to be intimate with it.” In the portrayal of the Chairman’s and Johnson’s relationship, the film offers a portrait of Hampton as a human. Chairman Fred may have been a revolutionary and a gifted orator, but he was also just a kid, inexperienced with love. The chemistry between Kaluuya and Fishback is so genuine that Deborah Johnson herself, who now goes by Mother Akua Njeri, described how it caused her to realize “how much [she] missed the love and camaraderie” of Chairman Fred.

Beyond the stellar performances and narrative, the film is a technical delight as well. The production design and costuming buck the stereotypical reds and yellows of ‘60s period pieces such as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, instead opting for greens, blacks, and browns that allow the film to accurately capture the essence of the time instead of fetishizing it and reducing it to an aesthetic. The color palette, as developed by these in conjunction with the lighting, is rich without feeling oversaturated, another rebuttal of traditional renditions of the ‘60s that proves effective. The three work in lockstep, often rendering shots with the feeling that they are photographs from the time come to life— it feels authentic.

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The cinematography, especially in the film’s first half, feels reminiscent of Spike Lee’s work. Although that may seem to be a ham-fisted comparison at first— why must all Black directors be compared to Spike Lee, I can almost hear you thinking— consider that King enrolled in the graduate film program at Tisch. He admitted to at least imagining himself in Lee’s shoes as an undergraduate poli-sci major, and Judas and the Black Messiah tells a story that is in many ways the inverse of Lee’s own BlacKkKlansman. This is all to say that the framing and blocking is bold and confident, as King walks the tightrope between realism and formalism as deftly as Lee. In one especially stylish shot, Kaluuya spikes the camera as the camera pushes in close— all without breaking the fourth wall.

Beyond all this, however, lies the fact that Judas and the Black Messiah could not have come at a better time. Hoover and the FBI nearly succeeded in erasing Chairman Fred and the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party from history; his name is all but unknown in the mainstream, and the story of both his great life and assassination at the hands of the government are not taught in most schools. Yet the reason these very schools are able to offer their students free breakfast is because of the efforts that the Chairman and the Illinois chapter made with the Free Breakfast Initiative, which they first established in Chicago. Hampton understood then what the masses are coming to understand in the wake of the unprecedented protests that took place this past summer; in the words of prominent activist Linda Sarsour, who spoke as part of a series of panels on the film, “to organize the people, you gotta meet their basic needs.”

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This is a film about the past, but parallels to the present can be made without much, if any difficulty. You can see it with your own eyes on the news. The no-knock warrant that killed Breonna Taylor as she slept in her bed, minding her own business, was the same one that killed Fred Hampton only 50 years ago as he slept in his bed, minding his own business. Both were less than 30 years old. The police that dress up in riot gear and fire rubber bullets at people’s faces are the same ones that harassed the Black Panthers and arrested the Chairman on a nonsensical charge of ice cream theft— the same ones that forced Bill O’Neal into an impossible situation.

On 2020’s RTJ4, an album released in June amid the Black Lives Matter protests, rapper Killer Mike reminds listeners to “never forget, in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state.” Perhaps in Hoover’s fear and desperation to prevent the rise of a Black Messiah, he ended up creating one.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is now in theaters and available on HBO Max through March 14.

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