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Judas and the Black Messiah

Director, Shaka King; Co-written with the Lucas Brothers and Will Berson

June, 2021

Review by Michael McMillan

Fred Hampton was the charismatic chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who, like a young bright star, was murdered aged 21 on 4 December, 1969, a year after Dr Martin Luther King Jr.  In Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), British actor Daniel Kaluuya gives an mesmerising, Oscar-winning performance as Hampton, seen as the latest ‘Black Messiah’ posing a threat to national security by a paranoid J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, played by Martin Sheen made-up to look like Dracula.

The Judas in the story is one William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who captures the contradictory duplicity that drives the momentum in this carefully crafted political tragedy. O’Neal is a petty car thief who, when caught impersonating a FBI agent, tells agent Roy Mitchell, played by a slyly impassive Jesse Plemons, that ‘[a] badge is scarier than a gun’. Instead of serving time in prison, O’Neal becomes an apolitical, opportunistic FBI informant; his thirty pieces of silver are steak dinners, fine whiskey, cigars and envelopes of cash. O’Neal eventually gets close to the Panther leadership, becoming security captain, and one of Fred Hampton’s confidants. 

Hampton’s family had moved to Chicago from Louisiana, and Kaluuya, an actor of Ugandan migrant heritage, draws on that diasporic affinity, using Southern inflections and idioms of humour and manners. Fellow Black Panther activist, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), with youthful wisdom, becomes Hampton’s lover. She calls him a poet for his gift of oratory, but scolds him early on for dismissing political symbolism and the cultural expression of Afrocentrism. More Marxist-Leninist than Pan Africanist, Hampton quotes Mao Zedong’s axiom, ‘War is politics with bloodshed, and politics is war without bloodshed’, being more interested in the material realities of a racist and fascist American system than in symbolism.

Hampton tells a meeting of white working-class ‘rednecks’ that if they were trapped in a burning building, their culture like his would be ‘water and escape’. America is on fire; and he forges alliances with those who share a similar predicament, also seeking out the leaders of black and Puerto Rican street gangs to form a ‘rainbow coalition’.

He is sent back and forth to prison as tensions between the Panthers and the Chicago police flare up into fatal violence. Despite Hampton’s comrades urging him to flee to Cuba or Algeria, he senses his own fate in talk of sacrificing his life for the struggle. There is a last supper, when comrades gather to eat at Hampton’s apartment, and in which he tenderly feeds his pregnant partner. O’Neal knows that this will be Hampton’s last night, and spikes his drink to send him to sleep. Later that night, a group of faceless men raid the apartment, killing Hampton amongst others. Johnson survives, and in a final arresting gaze we sense her focus on ensuring that Hampton’s memory lives on in their unborn child.

In TV documentary archive footage from 1989, in the final sequence of Judas and the Black Messiah, O’Neal proclaims ‘I was in the struggle’, disdaining those who stayed on the sidelines. Later, on the evening of the interview, he killed himself.