Director Shaka King crafts an intimate and inspiring portrait of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Deputy Chairman who was murdered in his sleep in 1969 by Chicago police in conjunction with the FBI, with his film Judas and The Black Messiah. What separates the film from a routine biopic is that this portrait is actually of two men. The film gives FBI informant William O'Neal equal time creating a dual narrative that draws from the Amadeus school of biopics and as a result, avoids the trappings of the genre. Judas and the Black Messiah is riveting, maddening and ultimately a tragedy of two men.
The film benefits from having two of the best working actors in lead roles. Daniel Kaluuya transforms into Hampton. His speech patterns and physicality bring this historical figure to life. Hampton's public speaking skills were extraordinary blending preaching and poetry with a musicality for the rhythm of speech. King and co-writer Will Berson make sure audiences know the power Hampton had with his words, giving us some passionate speeches throughout the film. This is countered by more intimate moments with his relationship with Deborah Johson (Dominique Fishback) who was nine months pregnant when Hampton was killed. What is remarkable is how these elements paint a picture of a man whose actions were focused on community building and support. A medical clinic was one of Hampton's primary focuses.
The Judas role in O'Neal is played by the wonderful Lakeith Stanfield. Stanfield has a unique ability to internalize turmoil and panic. His eyes consistently reveal the difficult position of pretending to be a revolutionary to save himself from going to prison for impersonating an FBI agent countered with a growing belief in Hampton's message. O'Neal was used by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to tip off the FBI to what the Black Panther movement was doing.
Judas and the Black Messiah shows that both men are victims of racial oppression by giving them equal time. O'Neal is in survival mode. Hampton has made peace with the idea he may have to sacrifice his life for the cause. These two men couldn't be different in what motivates them but the film connects them by showing that they are both products of a system designed against them.
On a technical level, the film is often firing on all cylinders. Sean Bobbit's cinematography uses a muted color scheme often to capture Chicago's black neighborhoods. The score by Craig Harris and Mark Isham uses an abstract jazz sound to create a rising tension as the two men's fates collide. The editing is sharp and brisk but occasionally uses cross-cutting too often and in ways that are confusing as to what is happening where.
King's film shows how Hoover's FBI plan had a dehumanizing effect on many. Plemons' FBI agent has to become increasingly hardened to carry out the job, changing the nature of his interactions with O'Neal from friendly to sinister. O'Neal was forever haunted by his actions, eventually committing suicide. Fred Hampton's story will always frustrate and anger anyone familiar with it. The brilliance of Judas and the Black Messiah is the way it humanizes him past what his death stood for. The film makes a powerful point by making us care about the fates of these two men. It lets that stand as a message rather than cramming one down the audience's throats. The film is a powerful tribute to an activist who was unjustly shut down.