It’s remarkable that the story of Fred Hampton is not one discussed more openly in contemporary society, particularly in schools where the pertinence of such a story could have a real sociological impact. In Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, Hampton’s life unravels itself alongside a story of deception and police brutality, it’s an explosive watch and one which forms an interesting back-to-back with Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven, despite their differences in tone and quality.
Brimming with tension and palpable anger, King’s film encases Hampton’s story in a biographical thriller that is as enjoyable to watch as it is educationally essential. “Anywhere there’s people, there’s power,” Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton utters throughout the film, a powerful summation of the unified hope of his Black Panther Party, as well as the unified fear of those that opposed their peaceful goals. The impassioned rallies that he would become famous for were laced with such messages of unification and proactivity against the police brutality of a late 1960s America.
Whilst such advances are being made, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) a petty thief impersonating the law is caught and detained, and given the option of prison or government snoop, opting for the latter. Infiltrating the Black Panther Party, Bill becomes embroiled with a personal conflict of interest, the Judas to Hampton’s messiah. Though as the title itself suggests, this is a film concerned with not just the life of the famous Fred Hampton, but one that interestingly balances both stories in either hand and judges O’Neal not as a ‘traitor’, but as a pawn in the wicked acts of the police force. In fact, he was merely one of many.
Such forms a powerful central narrative that plays out with effortless flow and vigour, paced to perfection as it flicks from Jesse Plemons’ FBI wrongdoings to O’Neals own moral battle with such natural progression. Moments of downtime between lovers Fred Hampton and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) are warmly cherished in contrast to the venomous spite of the opposition, creating a fierce contrast in which the illustrious offices of the FBI appear sleazy in comparison. Martin Sheen’s villainous prosthetics as J. Edgar Hoover does no good for this cause, neither does Jesse Plemons’ wry smile and smarmy sense of self-importance, though his character is a particular driving, a questionable influence whose own loyalties seem in conflict but remain entangled with that of the FBI.
A melting pot of acting pedigree, Judas and the Black Messiah’s strength is in the core of its incredible ensemble cast, led of course by two central performances that each command the screen and serve to elevate the intensity of one another. Daniel Kaluuya’s mesmerising power as the mighty Fred Hampton creates a swirling intensity, a marching call that makes the involvement of so many totally convincing. He is no mere mouthpiece, however, Kaluuya accesses the subtleties of such a character, revealing his innate compassion and astuteness, particularly when he and his lover played terrifically by Dominique Fishback flirt and laugh with contagious delight around their flat.
On the flipside is LaKeith Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal, who often seems as shrewd as Hampton, but lacks his natural affability. A sympathetic loner caught in the meticulous web of the law, the character is captured with deft accuracy by Stanfield. Speaking of the FBI agent that led his surveillance, O’Neal said: “At one point for me, he was like a role model when I didn’t have one. We had very few role models back then”. His story is in many ways a tragedy as he flits between ally and foe for the Black Panther movement.
It is one of Shaka King’s most vital triumphs, refusing to make O’Neal the villain where he was merely another victim of injustice and a footnote in the continuing battle for civil rights across the world.