'Judas and the Black Messiah' an intimate telling of Black Panther leader's murder

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)
Daniel Kaluuya stars in "Judas and the Black Messiah." The film opens Friday at Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

How does a filmmaker reckon with the unjust death of Fred Hampton?

The Black Panther Party Deputy Chairman was murdered in his sleep in 1969, at age 21, by Chicago police in conjunction with the FBI.

Director Shaka King focuses on Hampton’s words and revolutionary beliefs in his film “Judas and the Black Messiah,” crafting an inspiring portrait of the young activist, paired with an examination of the FBI’s insidious cultivation of informant William O’Neal, who was integral to their surveillance and murder of Hampton. King’s dual focus and stylish cinematic approach makes for a biopic that is at once rousing, maddening and desperately tragic.

Daniel Kaluuya, one of the best working actors today, is transformed, and riveting, as Hampton; it’s hard to imagine a better performance by an actor this year. His cadence and speech patterns, especially in his public speaking, are a blend of preaching, proselytizing and poetry, his vocal rhythms swinging from rat-a-tat to rock steady.

King and his co-writer Will Berson (the story is by Keith and Kenneth Lucas) have crafted an intimate portrayal of Hampton’s life and work that pairs his fiery speeches with tender moments of his relationship with fellow activist and Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who was nine months pregnant when Hampton died.

For all his talk of taking up arms in the fight for racial justice, Hampton’s actions are focused on community building: free breakfasts, medical clinics, bringing together the Panthers with racially diverse groups to speak out against police brutality.

His Judas is the apolitical O’Neal, played by the great Lakeith Stanfield, an actor who easily conveys a deep sense of inner turmoil, and who has the tricky task of a double performance, playing O’Neal’s own pretending to be a revolutionary. O’Neal is caught using a fake FBI badge to steal cars (because “a badge is scarier than a gun”).

Rather than go to prison, he takes a deal to become an FBI informant, infiltrating the Panthers and becoming Hampton’s security man and driver, delivering information to FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who keeps a tight grip on O’Neal with money and threats.

Daniel Kaluuya stars in "Judas and the Black Messiah." The film opens Friday at Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Both O’Neal and Hampton are victims of American racist oppression, but while O’Neal is just trying to survive within the system, Hampton, in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, has made peace with his own self-sacrifice in order to dream of a different world.

“You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder the revolution. You can murder a freedom-fighter, but you can’t murder freedom,” he exhorts his followers, becoming the true “Black Messiah” that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) has feared he would be.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography captures Chicago from the point-of-view of a low-slung backseat of a Buick, neon signs popping against the desaturated earth tones. Jazz musicians Craig Harris and Mark Isham craft a stripped down, abstract, jazz-inflected score, percussion instruments and low-toned horns blending with the rumbling of car engines, fervent oration and quiet whispers to create an uneasy sonic atmosphere.

King’s film allows for us to get to know Hampton in life, not just in death, both humanizing him, and illustrating the dehumanizing effects of this FBI scheme on its participants, including Special Agent Mitchell. Plemons’ performance becomes increasingly hardened and withdrawn, not to mention the destruction wreaked on O’Neal, used as a pawn in this plot (his ultimate judgment on a 1990 TV documentary, “Eyes on the Prize II,” is used as a framing device).

The story of Fred Hampton has always been one of frustration, sorrow and anger at Hoover’s sick obsession with destroying civil rights leaders who dared to imagine racial justice and equality. While “Judas and the Black Messiah” allows space for that rage, it also reminds us of the power of Hampton’s words, offering a powerful tribute to the activist whose legacy looms large.

‘JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH’

3.5 stars

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons.

Directed by Shaka King.

Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.

Available Friday in theaters and on HBO Max.

Rated R for violence and pervasive language.