by Cortney Wills —
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the film everyone is talking about, and rightfully so. Everything from the costumes and props that set the film firmly in the late 1960s to the real-life footage included was strategically selected to tell a story Hollywood would typically pass on.
Directed by Shaka King, who co-wrote the screenplay with Will Berson, the film is based on the assassination of 21-year-old Fred Hampton, a chairman for the Black Panthers Party.
The story was written by Kenny and Keith Lucas. Ryan Coogler and Charles D. King produced the film.
“The first thing to make my ears prick was the Lucas Brothers’ brilliant decision to couch Fred Hampton‘s ideas in an undercover crime drama. I think that that made the movie not only accessible to a wider audience but it also, quite frankly, made the studios comfortable with investing the kind of money it would take to make a movie of this scope and really to make a period drama,” Shaka King told theGrio.
“The truth of that is that I don’t think we could have even gotten a traditional Fred Hampton biopic made today.”
The impeccable cast includes LaKeith Stanfield starring as William O’Neal, an FBI informant whose duplicitous actions set a sinister plan into motion. Daniel Kaluuya delivers his most impressive performance to date as Chairman Fred Hampton, the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, who was gunned down by police at the age of 21.
Dominique Fishback is flawless as Deborah Johnson, who spent much of her pregnancy fretting over what his allegiance to the cause would mean for the life she carried in her womb.
Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Martin Sheen, and Jesse Plemmons round out the cast in the film that feels like a damning indictment of the FBI and the Chicago Police Department, told from the perspective of a man who managed to fool himself just as well as he deceived the Black Panthers.
When we first meet the film’s Judas, William O’Neal, he’s boosting a car by impersonating a federal officer. When he’s busted for his crime, he takes a plea deal proposed by Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons), who tasks him with infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers after being pressured by the higher-ups to keep tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton.
As O’Neal embeds himself into the organization, he sees a side to the Panthers not often highlighted in our history books. He seems affected by everything from the free breakfast programs, to the speeches, to the loyal members, but not enough to make him abandon his mission.
Meanwhile, Hampton is busy seeking out the support of other organizations, unifying former foes, and using his incredible oratory skills to inspire those around him to fight for their freedom. He’s also busy falling in love with Deborah Johnson, a woman who is moved by his words and dedicated to the cause, even after her man is arrested and imprisoned, unaware that she’s carrying his child.
O’Neal solidifies his standing in the organization by stepping up after Hampton’s arrest and playing a significant role in rebuilding their headquarters after a shootout with police prompted authorities to bomb it. When Hampton is released from jail, he’s overwhelmed by the progress made in the organization and in his life, with Johnson’s pregnancy in full swing.
When one of their comrades, Jimmy Palmer (Sanders), is killed in the hospital, another member, Jake Winters (Smith), takes matters into his own hands and seeks revenge on the authorities by sparking a shootout that ultimately claims his life.
Hampton is on his way back to prison after his appeal is denied, and O’Neal mistakenly believes his work is done until he’s faced with a final request from his handler. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover isn’t satisfied with Hampton behind bars and he instructs Agent Mitchell to “neutralize” the threat once and for all.
That means he needs to know the layout of Hampton’s apartment, and O’Neal provides the blueprint. He also drugs Hampton with sedatives the night before he’s scheduled to turn himself in, ensuring he had no chance to survive the impending attack.
As planned, authorities break into the apartment and open fire on a sleeping Hampton, who’s lying next to his pregnant fiancée. Johnson doesn’t shed a tear as she hears one final shot fired into the man she loved with the barrel of a gun pressed against her belly.
Judas and the Black Messiah tells a story we should already know, in a way that we aren’t accustomed to seeing. Based on facts and informed by authentic experiences, the result is a staunch reminder that the government will stop at nothing to stifle our power.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is available in theaters and on HBO Max.