“When Hollywood meets radical history, this is what you get. Is that a bad thing?”
First, we’ll cover history.
Recruited by the Black Panther Party after his involvement with the NAACP was recognised, Fred Hampton, a young Black man from the suburbs of Chicago, was tasked with leading the nascent Illinois chapter. During his work as leader of the party, he worked with different marginalised groups across Chicago and spoke on the importance of recognising class and the ideals of socialism. Because of this, he was labelled a “radical threat” by the FBI and was put under investigation. Phones were tapped, cars were followed, and unlawful arrests were made. In December 1969, Fred Hampton, the then-leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther party, was assassinated by the FBI. At his funeral, Jesse Jackson eulogised that “when Fred was shot in Chicago, black people in particular, and decent people in general, bled everywhere”.
I say all of this to reiterate that that’s not what Judas and the Black Messiah focuses on. The film sets most of its attention on the story of William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), the FBI informant that infiltrated the party and was tasked with leaking information and gaining the trust of Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya). The film chooses to position itself as a drama, rather than a historical retelling; as the story of O’Neal, a man poised to give up his soul to sell out his own. The film is what happens when Hollywood meets radical history. Is that a bad thing?
The film’s focus on O’Neal has been called out by some critics and viewers, who, understandably, argue that the focus on the traitor is somewhat disappointing. Rapper Noname passed on featuring on the film’s soundtrack, pointing out that the politics of Fred Hampton weren’t front and centre, willing people to actually go and study Hampton’s views on US imperialism and fascism, beyond what’s shown in the movie.
I’m a firm believer in creative licence within the film industry – an industry where good storytelling should always take precedence. Judas and the Black Messiah was never billed as a strict biopic, but the omission of historical elements that could’ve aided the storytelling is what holds the film back from being perfect. The film, directed by newcomer Shaka King, skims over some of Hampton’s most important work, including the formation of The Rainbow Coalition, a movement that brought together the Panthers, the Young Patriots Organisation — which comprised mostly white, leftist Appalachians who had migrated to Chicago — and the Young Lords, a Latinx gang turned human rights organisation that critiqued police brutality and fought for the self-determination of Puerto Ricans and other Latinx communities. This stance on cross-culturalism is powerful and would’ve added nuance where the film sometimes fails to establish it.
Where omission works however, is for LaKeith’s portrayal of O’Neal. The film doesn’t so much as scratch the surface as to the motivations behind his willingness to betray. Beyond a bit of cash and a car, a post-biblical equivalent of thirty pieces of silver, there’s no solid suggestion to why he commits this act of treason. LaKeith plays this with a trembling, manic energy, which only adds to the eeriness of his character. It’s brilliant.
It’s this calibre of acting that is the film’s best quality. Daniel Kaluuya, already the recipient of a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Fred Hampton, is electric. Where results of Hampton’s leadership is somewhat skimmed over, Kaluuya perfectly captures his charisma and penchant for an instinctive rhetoric, so much so that you’re almost transported into these community halls that the speeches take place in. The acting is mesmeric, and supported by the likes of Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s partner Deborah, and my personal supporting standout Algee Smith, who plays Jake Winters, an outspoken, young member of the party.
Judas and the Black Messiah can’t do everything. It didn’t need to be a history lesson - no film should or perhaps really, even can be. But what it achieves is still quite something. It is a bittersweet compliment to what’s here, that you end the film wishing it’d done even more.
You can rent the movie premiere of JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH at home from 11th March in the UK.