On December 4, 1969, 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was assassinated by the FBI. You might recognise the explosive background from recent films like The Trial Of The Chicago 7 and MLK/FBI but you probably won’t know much about the man behind the murder – car thief turned informer turned best friend William O’Neal. Director Shaka King tells Hampton’s story through O’Neal’s eyes, rewriting a footnote of history as a biblical betrayal that roars with anger and two of the very best performances of the year from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Queen & Slim) and Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Uncut Gems).
O’Neal (Stanfield) is a rubbish criminal. Arrested within the film’s first five minutes for stealing a car, an FBI agent (played by a slithering Jesse Plemons) offers him a chance to avoid prison if he infiltrates the Chicago chapter of revolutionary political organisation the Black Panther Party. Local Chairman Hampton (Kaluuya) has been worrying the suits by talking about socialism and free breakfasts, so they want O’Neal to get close and keep an eye on him.
Like all good undercover cop stories, things get complicated when the mole starts getting in too deep – O’Neal finding something to believe in with Hampton as he gets closer to him, eventually becoming his most trusted bodyguard during a year spent uniting Chicago’s warring gangs and building momentum for a national civil rights coalition. When FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, looking like a bloated Dracula under layers of prosthetics) orders Hampton’s execution, O’Neal is caught in the middle of an existential crisis.
King’s film moves with supreme confidence, muscling its way through American political history with strength and style – but its real power comes from Kaluuya and Stanfield, each giving the best performance of their career.
Hampton’s journey points painfully towards self-sacrifice, and Kaluuya plays him with cold intensity and explosive energy that does Hampton’s legacy proud. One electrifying scene of revolutionary speechmaking will probably be played on all the award show reels this year, but it’s when Kaluuya finds the quieter, haunted side of Hampton that he really proves his range – and when the full tragedy of the story seems even harder to swallow.
Even more fascinating is Stanfield as O’Neal – a directionless, frightened punk who finds faith in the law, then in Hampton, without ever really realising that he’s being used. It’s a beautifully written arc but it’s Stanfield who makes it feel real, finally getting the bigger credit he deserves after years of being the most interesting actor in other people’s films.
Shot almost entirely in gloomy car interiors, smoky stairwells and blue green reflections, Judas And The Black Messiah finds the sense of time and place that was missing from Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (a film that briefly touched on Hampton’s story) and lands closer to the heavyweight crime dramas of the ’60s and ’70s that clearly inspired it. King slow-builds the tension as Hampton and O’Neal start circling their endgame, and the rising paranoia swirls with a nervous free-jazz score from Mark Isham and Craig Harris, but the film’s ending still feels like a gut punch even when you know what’s going to happen.
Yet another film that captures the mood of the late ’60s and makes it crackle with the same energy of today’s political climate, Judas And The Black Messiah feels like it needs to be seen. Far from just a mini-biopic about a shameful chapter of American history, and way more than a simple character study from two of the best actors around, this is angry, important, relevant filmmaking about a message that matters.
- Director: Shaka King
- Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
- Release date: March 11 (Australia)