The brief, brilliant life of onetime Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, assassinated at the age of 21 by the literal Powers-That-Be (the Herbert Hoover-led FBI, Chicago Police Department) after three years of increasingly high-profile social, political, and economic activism receives a much anticipated, much-needed biopic treatment in writer-director Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, incandescent, incendiary agitprop filmmaking as timely and relevant in 1969 when Hampton lost his life as it is now, less than a year after spontaneous Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death urgently returned the related issues of racism, law enforcement, and the criminal (in)justice system to the national conversation.
Judas and the Black Messiah splits screen time almost equally between the two title characters, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You), a 17-year-old FBI informant who rose to a prominent position in the Illinois Black Panther Party (IBPP), and Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out), at 18, a community organizer, social activist, and political revolutionary who presciently called for unity between Black and brown people and white leftists (a “Rainbow Coalition,” the first of its kind). Hampton’s anti-capitalistic, anti-war activism and increasing public visibility made him one of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s (Martin Sheen, cast against type) top targets, leading FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to recruit O’Neal to infiltrate the IBPP. Mitchell waves away any potential objections by arguing the IBPP is nothing more (or less) than the Black version of the Ku Klux Klan, using terror and violence for separatist/supremacist ends, and therefore a justifiable target for the federal government.
Succeeding well beyond Mitchell’s expectations, O’Neal rises quickly in the IBPP, eventually becoming Hampton’s security chief. O’Neal’s position, in turn, gives him the perfect opportunity to betray Hampton once the FBI and the Chicago Police eventually decide that Hampton posed an existential threat to the political, cultural, and social order (i.e., white supremacy). Before the FBI/Chicago Police predawn raid that takes Hampton’s life, though, a friendship, albeit a friendship based on lies, duplicity, and betrayal, develops between O’Neal and Hampton, with Hampton’s implicit trust growing in O’Neal in practical lockstep with Hampton’s growing self-confidence in his oratorical skills and his ability to not just move listeners or crows emotionally, but to act politically as well.
With Hampton’s fate hanging over every word, gesture, and action, it’s difficult, though not entirely impossible, to humanize Hampton, to give him depth and dimensionality beyond the confines of his near-mythical status as a ‘60s icon of the Black revolutionary struggle or a promising life cut short by white supremacist violence, a status that grows with each passing year. King’s attempts to bring Hampton the individual into sharper focus succeed more often than they fail, though King tends to rely heavily on not unfamiliar biopic conventions and tropes, like Hampton’s romantic relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, a standout in an underwritten role), his partner at the time of Hampton’s premature death and the mother of Hampton’s son.
More in comparison than contrast, the perpetually nervous, anxious O’Neal feels more like a sketch than a character, more a combination of mannerisms and tics than a complex, contradictory individual, though Stanfield’s shaded performance (his second with Kaluuya) repeatedly hints at hidden depths in O’Neal’s personality. Still, the alternating narrative focus between O’Neal and Hampton too often feels like an obligation or duty on King’s part, necessary to push their dual, intertwined stories forward, but generally of secondary, even marginal interest. It’s understandable, of course, given Hampton’s provocative, incendiary rhetoric, rhetoric born out of direct, lived experience and the political moment Hampton found himself, the real Hampton’s oratorical skills and talent for political leadership, and Kaluuya’s pitch-perfect performance as Hampton.