A film is always a harrowing watch when based on a real-life person whose life is tragically cut short, especially when it’s a person like the late Chairman Fred Hampton Sr whose government sanctioned murder is the topic of the new Warner Bros. Picture’s release JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH.
In his short life of 21 years, Hampton rose through the ranks of the Black Panther Party to chair the Illinois branch, creating and contributing to various community services, spreading messages of power, self-determination, and pride, demanding the end of police brutality and killing of Blacks, and uniting several disenfranchised and oppressed groups of people along the way.
So powerful was he, and so feared was the party’s message, that he was identified by the federal bureau as an agitator, the film highlights the term “messiah,” who needed to be stopped – and eventually killed.
Enter 17-year-old William “Bill” O’Neal, already having committed such acts as theft, kidnapping and torture, who was arrested on charges of impersonating a federal agent and driving a stolen car across state lines. To avoid felony charges, he’s convinced by FBI agent Roy Mitchell to infiltrate the party and act as an informant – ultimately giving layout details of Hampton’s residence and putting the barbiturate and sleep agent secobarbital in his drink to assist police in the 1969 raid that killed Hampton, party member Mark Clark, and injured several others.
This is the focus of co-writer, along with Will Berson, Shaka King’s studio feature film directorial debut. It’s not a full biopic, but a part fictionalized snapshot of historical events, bookended by clips (the first recreated with Lakeith Stanfield and the latter featuring real footage) of O’Neal’s 1990 “Eyes on the Prize” interview – which aired on the same day he took his life at age 40.
King keeps the energy and intensity of the film high, with very little room to spare for soft and intimate moments like the few the audience is given displaying the relationship between Hampton and his co-activist girlfriend Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri), portrayed by the magnificent Dominique Fishback – whose lens is used as Hampton is shot in his bed while she offers one of the most heartbreakingly compelling performances in the film.
Stanfield, whose take elicits much warranted (due to O’Neal’s age and targeted manipulation by the feds) and unwarranted (due to his ultimate treacherous actions) sympathy, as O’Neal is an emotional dynamo, and his skills are heightened against Daniel Kaluuya’s powerfully passionate turn – which he nails even down to Hampton’s rhythmic cadence and oration skills which Kaluuya took opera lessons to perfect.
Both actors are surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including Dominique Thorne as Judy Harmon, Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell, Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer, and Algee Smith as Jake Winters.
Aided by a haunting score and solid soundtrack, the film is a captivating and tragic synopsis of one of the darkest setups in the Civil Rights period. It’s also a timely reminder of the longstanding fight against police brutality and terror during this Black Lives Matter era.
I rate the film 4 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is out today in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
Until next thought, Thomasena
AAFCA Virtual Roundtable with Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., Daniel Kaluuya, and LaKeith Stanfield (note question around 28:25 mark where I ask Kaluuya and Stanfield about the self-care process while portraying tragic characters).