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Sundance Review: “Judas and the Black Messiah” Offers Powerful History Lesson

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 2nd, 2021

Film poster: “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King, 2021) 4 out of 4 stars.

Fred Hampton, a leader in the Black Panther party, was killed by the FBI in an early-morning raid on December 4, 1969, at the not-so-ripe old age of 21. Like many in that organization, he had long been harassed by law enforcement, mostly for the unforgivable sin of being Black and proud. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover feared the Panthers, believing that such a strong African American solidarity movement threatened the security and well-being of all citizens. Well, all white citizens is what he really meant. What genuinely concerned not only him, but many in the establishment, was the way that charismatic figures like Hampton so eloquently spoke to the need for all working-class folks, across racial and ethnic lines, to unite against capitalist oppression. In this, Hampton followed in the footsteps of the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. Once people refuse to be divided and conquered, that’s when the system crumbles.

In his new film Judas and the Black Messiah, director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) beautifully lays out all these concerns, as vital now as they were back then, inside a tale of activism and treachery. Daniel Kaluuya (Queen & Slim) plays Hampton, filling the screen with that man’s brilliance, charm and idealism, but he is less the focus than the man who betrayed him, William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You). It’s through the latter’s eyes that we come to appreciate not only all that Hampton stood for, but all that was lost when he died. “I am a revolutionary,” he cried, and yes, he did indeed mean to overthrow institutions of injustice. Flash forward 50 years, and it’s clear that not much has changed, as they very much still exist.

O’Neal is but a kid when we first meet him (after a brief, introductory prologue shot to look like the real-life interview O’Neal gave when 40), a petty thief who gets caught while jacking a car. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) takes an interest, and following Hoover’s injunction to stop the rise of a “Black Messiah,” offers O’Neal a choice: work for the feds (and get paid handsomely for it) or go to jail. And so O’Neal joins the Panthers, working his way into their graces until he is not only Hampton’s driver, but the eventual head of the Chicago chapter’s security team. Along the way, however, he finds himself battling not only guilt but identification with all that Hampton preaches. Money and freedom are nice, but so are friendship and principles. This is ancient history, so we know how it all played out, but seeing its dramatization makes for powerful cinema.

Lakeith Stanfield (front) and Daniel Kaluuya (back) appear in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.

King populates the movie with a solid ensemble that includes Martin Sheen (Princess of the Row) as Hoover and Dominique Fishback (Project Power) as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s fiancée (and eventual mother to his only child). Kaluuya and Plemons are both excellent in their own parts, but the movie largely belongs to Stanfield, whose haunted eyes express all the pain of a man without options who still wishes he were better than he is. Despite the strength of that performance, it’s the enduring appeal of Hampton’s (and the Panthers’) message, that through unity we are strong, that most remains at the end: “You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution.” Sadly, that proved untrue, though maybe only then. It’s a new day.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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