By Bradley Lane
On Dec. 4 at 4:45 a.m., 14 Chicago police officers stormed into the apartment of Chicago Black Panther Party Chairman, Fred Hampton and murdered him in his sleep. Hampton was only 21 years old in 1969 when he was killed. Judas and the Black Messiah recounts the events leading up to that tragic early morning. The film begins with Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) hard at work to support the Panther’s free breakfast program and creating the Rainbow Coalition by unifying Chicago’s street gangs when Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is tasked by the FBI with infiltrating the Panthers and gaining Hampton’s trust. At the heart of the story are the relationships Between O’Neal and Hampton, and O’Neal and his contact at the FBI (Jesse Plemons) as the loyalty of O’Neal is pulled between the two men, and more importantly, pulled between his ideals and his survival.
The most immediately impressive aspect of the film is the powerful performances from the leads of the film. Kaluuya, Stanfield, Plemons and Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s love interest Deborah Johnson, are all utterly transformative. This core cast of powerful characters allows for the film to consistently be engaging in unique ways regardless of who is on screen. Moments shared between Hampton and Johnson are tender while O’Neal’s scenes with the FBI contact are tense and feel sickly voyeuristic. All these characters in their own unique ways are eminently relatable, which lends itself well to the film’s themes of survival.
The organization of the Rainbow Coalition under Hampton’s lead in 1960s Chicago was also an effort of survival. Hampton was deeply compelled by decolonization and the ideals of a Black struggle for liberation but understood that the same systems that oppress Black people also oppress poor people of all colors in some way or another. So, he utilized his political critiques to nurture solidarity between the most disparate of cultures in Chicago to fight a unified fight against the ruling class. This radical political ideology is not one often found in mainstream Hollywood releases and that alone is worth commending. The more perspectives represented in media the more robust the debate they can facilitate becomes.
This political messaging is at the forefront of the film, a nod to Hampton’s enduring legacy but at the core of Judas and the Black Messiah is a deeply human universal tale of struggle. The enduring struggle of people fighting to make the world they live in better and the struggle to balance that effort with caring for the people you care about and love personally. The film does a fantastic job of illuminating why that struggle is so compelling and heartbreaking when it plays out how it did for countless people then and since, and specifically for the chairman Fred Hampton. Judas and the Black Messiah is available to stream on HBO Max. – 4.5/5 stars