This biodrama about Chicago activist Fred Hampton recaps a shameful moment in U.S. history

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Judas and the Black Messiah
VOD: February 12

3.5 out of 5

Judas and the Black Messiah has a lot going for it: a fascinating real life story about Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, a level of topicality in this age of Black Lives Matter and resurgent white nationalism that’s impossible to manufacture, and a strong cast headed by Daniel Kaluuya (Hampton) — an already solid actor who keeps expanding his range and reaching new heights. To think we first met him as Johnny English’s sidekick…

The movie’s main focus, though, isn’t Hampton, but his driver/bodyguard Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You). A car thief, and not a very good one, the 17-year-old falls into the clutches of the FBI in 1966 after trying to impersonate a federal agent. To avoid five years in prison, O’Neal agrees to infiltrate the Black Panthers and get close to the charismatic Chicago chairman, Fred Hampton.

While not particularly brilliant, O’Neal is quick on his feet and manages to get in Hampton’s orbit. Hampton keeps him at arm’s length, however. He may not know O’Neal is a rat, but he can recognize a true believer from a poseur. A pragmatic opportunist at heart, the informer remains an asset to the FBI even after becoming spellbound by the man he’s set up to betray.

Hampton himself is presented as a principled man. Blending a razor sharp intellect with a community-oriented mindset and uncanny ability to build bridges with disenfranchised groups, Chairman Fred is a force to reckon with… and a formidable threat, according to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). Under Hoover, the FBI saw the Black Panthers as a terrorist organization, and behaved accordingly.

As portrayed by Kaluuya, Hampton is not just intellectually gifted, he also has a high degree of emotional intelligence. To advance the cause of civil rights, he comes to terms with the more militant aspects of the Black Panthers’ path of resistance, struggling especially with the violence component — while not disavowing it. A good portion of the film is dedicated to his relationship with his speechwriter Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, Project Power), who may love Hampton, but didn’t sign up for martyrdom.

The best thing director Shaka King does is get out of the way. The story is powerful enough, and is made even more compelling by a cast firing at all cylinders. Fireworks and flair are not required. The deification of Hampton (see title) is a bit hard to accept, and his “Judas” (O’Neal) gets relatively gentle treatment too, but that doesn’t subtract from the final product.

There’s one problem with the film that may seem like nitpicking, but it does a number on your ability to focus on the story: Martin Sheen’s prosthetics. Instead of looking like J. Edgar Hoover, he resembles a Dick Tracy villain. It’s a baffling decision. Kaluuya doesn’t resemble Fred Hampton at all, yet his performance channels the character to the hilt.

Audiences not familiar with the outcome of the FBI sting operation should stay clear of Wikipedia. Both the ending and the coda pack a wallop (I’ll just say the real O’Neal looks a lot less regretful than Stanfield). After decades of racially motivated demonization, it’s clear that there was more to the Black Panthers than the official “truth.”

Ed Note: A few weeks before the FBI sting operation against Fred Hampton reached its tragic conclusion on Dec. 4, 1969 the Chicago Black Panther leader paid a visit to the University of Regina after being invited by the student council to speak about civil rights issues. You can read more about that historic visit here.