If you’ve seen The Trial of the Chicago 7, you at least have an idea of who Fred Hampton is and how he died. If you want the whole picture, Judas and the Black Messiah is essential viewing. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know much about Hampton up until this awards season. I also knew nothing about William O’Neal, this film’s titular Judas. O’Neal is just as much the central figure of Shaka King’s rousing biopic, if not more so. The same can be said about the actual Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Lakeith Stanfield continues to prove that he can do little wrong as O’Neal, who poses as an FBI agent to steal cars. When O’Neal is caught, he’s confronted by a real FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Mitchell gives O’Neal a choice: prison or infiltrate the Black Panther Party. O’Neal naturally chooses the latter. It isn’t long until he gains the trust of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the party’s Illinois chapter. At first, O’Neal is only interested in getting through this ordeal in one piece. The deeper O’Neal gets, however, the more he begins to identify with Hampton’s cause.
In a relatively short amount of time, Daniel Kaluuya has established himself as one of our most versatile actors. His Oscar-nominated performance in Get Out balanced terror with humor. He went from playing a victim to playing a ruthless monster in Widows. In Queen & Slim, he transformed from an average joe to a symbol of rebellion. Kaluuya delivers his finest performance yet as Hampton, who commands every room he enters. At the same time, Kaluuya brings out Hampton’s gentle, even shy side as he falls in love with a fellow Black Panther named Deborah Johnson, beautifully played by Deborah Johnson.
By the time he was 21, Hampton had done more for the black community than most politicians have in their entire careers. Had Hampton lived longer, there’s no telling what else he might have accomplished. Although our sympathies lie with Hampton, we still can’t help but feel bad for O’Neal. Most people in O’Neal’s shoes likely would’ve taken the same deal. Few would’ve been brave enough to accept prison or death. At the end of the day, though, O’Neal caused Hampton and countless others unspeakable pain to save his own skin. Watching O’Neal is like watching a literal rat trying to weasel his way out of a maze with nowhere to go.
While O’Neal conjures mixed feelings, one figure we undeniably despise is J. Edgar Hoover, who paints the Black Panthers as a terrorist organization. It never ceases to amaze me how Martin Sheen can go from playing to the noblest of presidents like Jed Bartlet to the slimiest of law enforcers. There’s a particularly shocking scene where Hoover confronts Mitchell about his daughter and the prospect of her bringing home a black man. Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t always an easy film to watch, but Hampton’s story is one that everyone should know. Just as One Night in Miami did its four African-American figures justice, King and Kaluuya have done the same for Hampton.
Judas and the Black Messiah starting playing in theaters and HBO Max on February 12.