As much as the film -- starting with its dazzling opening montage of the long, hot summers of racial uprisings before and after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination -- seeks to open up access to history, it also immerses the viewer in an American landscape that looks, in many unsettling ways, strikingly familiar to our own moment.
Daniel Kaluuya plays Hampton as effortlessly charismatic, brilliant and passionate. "Judas and the Black Messiah" springs to life whenever the film centers on Hampton's energetic mind, big heart and deft negotiating skills.
Hampton, also depicted briefly
on screen last year in "The Trial of the Chicago 7
," was born and raised in the Chicago area and became a legendary Black activist there in the 1960s, a leader in the Black Panther Party of Illinois. During the Chicago 7 trial
stemming from police violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Hampton was killed
at age 21, shot in his own home during a raid by Chicago police and Cook County State's Attorney officers.
As deputy chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Hampton's ability to galvanize Black activists in Chicago made him a threat in the minds of both local and national law enforcement agencies. J. Edgar Hoover, who spied on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
, proved to be perhaps King's greatest nemesis, with Hoover serving as an implacable foe who threatened to publicly expose
the civil rights leader's extramarital affairs. Beyond Malcolm X and civil rights activists of the early 1960s, Hoover found even greater threat in the Black Panthers; publicly and privately he deemed them to be the greatest internal security threat the America.
Fred Hampton's legacy still burns bright
In an artistic choice proving rightly controversial
, the film's narrative focuses on Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield's tortured William O'Neal, a car thief and FBI impersonator turned Bureau informant who betrays him. The FBI illegally monitored the Black Panthers through Hoover's notorious COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence) Program, using informants to foment deadly internecine violence, suspicion, and recriminations within the group and among its allies.
O'Neal's weary eyes haunted one of the most poignant episodes of the "Eyes on the Prize II" documentary series, where the real-life informant recalled his role in assisting the FBI by providing intelligence on the Chicago BPP and drawing floorplans of Hampton's apartment in advance of the police raid that resulted in the shooting death of Hampton on December 4, 1969. That interview
, recorded in 1989, proved to be the first and last time O'Neal narrated his story. When the episode premiered on January 15, 1990, O'Neal committed suicide
Hampton, a former NAACP youth organizer who knew Black Power icon Stokely Carmichael from his youthful political activism, proved to be perhaps the most effective organizer in Panther history, drawing college students, gang members, the Black working class, White activists called the Young Patriots
and the Puerto Rican Young Lords
into the first iteration of the "rainbow coalition" -- the description that Jesse Jackson, another Chicago based civil rights organizer, would both borrow and make famous in two historic presidential campaigns during the 1980s.
What the focus on 'Judas' excludes
The Black Panthers organized free breakfast programs for children and armed street patrols that monitored the Oakland police, who were viewed by many as an occupying army enforcing visible lines of racial and economic segregation. The Panthers built a health care clinic in Chicago named after Jake Winters, a 19-year-old member killed in a shootout
with law enforcement that left two police officers dead days before Hampton's death
Much of this socio-political dimension of Hampton's work is forsaken in the filmmakers' decision to focuses on O'Neal; we forgo a richer understanding of Hampton, the Panthers, Chicago and the nation—the context that made Black radical politics appealing to many. In contrast, Regina King's magisterial "One Night in Miami" boldly captures a searing moment in the lives of Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (before becoming Muhammad Ali), Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, told from the point of view of the subjects themselves. This small detail is revolutionary in the history of American cinema, since it allows Black humanity to shine in all of its flawed brilliance, without the use of White translators.
One positive dimension of the focus on O'Neal and his FBI handler Roy Mitchell (played with unnerving calm by Jesse Plemons) is that "Judas and the Black Messiah" accurately suggests that America's racial and political landscape during the late 1960s resembled more of a war zone than we may feel comfortable remembering or acknowledging.
On this score, O'Neal's cozy relationship with the FBI allows for an intimate portrayal of the way in which federal law enforcement, the Chicago Police and US State's Attorney's offices focused on punishing Black freedom fighters rather than rooting out the racial violence of White supremacists and racial terrorists whose actions ensured that racially segregated ghettos remained that way.
'You can't murder the Revolution'
As we stand near the close of a presidential impeachment trial for inciting a White supremacist insurrection at the Capitol -- a riot that included off-duty police officers and former military -- "Judas and the Messiah's" deep dive into the unethical behavior of law enforcement in the name of justice is especially resonant, not only because of the law enforcement and military figures shown among the rioters, but also because of the bravery shown by members of the Capitol Police -- many of them Black -- in fighting the racist violence.
In that sense, the film offers an origin story of how American law enforcement, by taking its eye off the real threat of domestic terrorism that White supremacists in Chicago (who had famously assaulted Dr. King in 1966 and other civil rights activists
as they demonstrated for open housing) set the stage for their proliferation in our own time.
President Joe Biden's decision to utter the words "White supremacy" during his inauguration
repudiated a long history of law enforcement identifying civil rights activists, including Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter protestors, as subversives, rather than taking seriously the violence posed by heavily armed White supremacists.
"You can murder a revolutionary, but you can't murder the Revolution," Hampton passionately explains to a capacity crowd at one point in the movie. The image and the line are especially poignant because as Hampton galvanizes a multiracial crowd into a euphoric call and response that mimics the experience of sitting in a Black church, O'Neal leads chants of, "Right on!" At one point, he caught the gaze of his White FBI handler in disguise as a progressive ally.
The film's limitations also surface a crucial through-line
Kaluuya's deft portrayal of Hampton showcases the charismatic intelligence and rhetorical bravado that made him a legend and imbues him with a sense of gravitas in quieter moments that are all too fleeting.
The film shines brightest in these most intimate moments, such as a heartbreaking scene where Hampton and his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri), who was almost nine months pregnant, discuss the joy and trauma of bringing a Black baby into a world scarred by racial violence. Hampton recalls his mother occasionally babysitting Emmett Till, the Black 14-year-old from Chicago whose 1955 lynching, made him the civil rights era's most well-known teen-age martyr.
Though Shaka King leans into these moments too infrequently, he succeeds in portraying the Black Panthers as three-dimensional human beings. The film provides a less-than-360-degree view of the group's politics, however; the power of the Black Panthers' critique
of economic injustice, police brutality, racism, and poverty is at times glossed over by the dramatic focus on the inner workings of law enforcement's efforts to destabilize and destroy the group.
While this alternative focus limits the film as a representation of history, it also enables "Judas and the Black Messiah" to dramatize more effectively the roots behind America's contemporary racial divide. There is a historical through-line evident to the viewer between the police killing of Fred Hampton in 1969 and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.
The Black Lives Matter protests that rocked America last year resonate deeply within this history. BLM's efforts to transform the criminal justice system have been interpreted by many in law enforcement and other critics as a violent assault against the status quo.
In the film's climactic scene, the 21-year-old Hampton (drugged by O'Neal at the FBI's behest) dies gruesomely in a police raid. According to news reports, police fired 99 shots into Hampton's apartment while the Panthers fired one back, yet the seven survivors faced a litany of charges. The violence against Black people, followed by a lack of accountability for the White officers who took Hampton's life, evokes contemporary instances of anti-Black police violence that spurred the Black Lives Matter Movement. Remarkably Njeri, who was home at the time, survived. So did her unborn child, Fred Hampton Jr., who would become a dedicated activist.
The Justice Department, the city of Chicago and Cook County settled a civil suit
with Hampton's family for almost $2 million in 1982; a Justice Department attorney at the time said the settlement did not concede wrongdoing, a point attorneys for the plaintiffs (and others since) have disputed. "Judas and the Black Messiah" briefly addresses these issues in a closing crawl that ends a film that, despite its flaws, should inspire more interest and cinematic, literary and artistic exploration of the life of Fred Hampton, a shooting star of the era whose light continues to burn bright long past his death.