Judas and the Black Messiah is a solid biopic of Fred Hampton and the conspiracy that killed him. Over two hours, Shaka King’s film presents a compelling popular history of the man, his ideology of Afro-Marxism, and the nefarious elements that caused his brutal assassination in December 1969.
The roots of conspiracy are established with pace and brevity. Petty crook William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) bursts into a Chicago bar wielding a badge and donned in a raincoat and trilby. He uses this guise to frisk young black men at a pool table, taking cash and car keys that he claims to be contraband. However, a lapse in O’Neal’s confidence causes the men to see through his act and they pursue him onto the street, where a passing cop car catches him.
O’Neal finds himself in custody facing two years for grand theft auto and five years for impersonating a federal agent. However, Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) sees potential in this wily career criminal. He offers to drop the charges if O’Neal goes undercover and infiltrates Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the Illinois Black Panthers.
Soon, O’Neal is in close contact with Hampton, attending seminars and assisting at community functions. As Hampton, Kaluuya is an immediate screen presence, stealing every scene as he embodies the activist’s rousing energy. The London native adds another accent to his repertoire, too, seamlessly capturing the baritone rhythm of Hampton’s oratory. The only thing Kaluuya does not reflect is Hampton’s remarkable precociousness; he was just 21 on the night of his death.
O’Neal’s charade continues as he postures at the sidelines. He bears witness to street politics of black Chicago, namely the tensions between the Panthers and the Crowns, a fellow revolutionary group. More interesting than that, though, is Hampton’s diplomacy with white and Hispanic groups. It is here that he speaks not just as a civil rights campaigner but also as a socialist.
In one scene, Hampton addresses a provincial white crowd, empathizing with their blue-collar plight. Shortly before he takes the stage, the audience’s leader says, “Our people oppressed your people for years”, to which a crowd member responds, “My family didn’t oppress shit, they were sharecroppers!” Hampton understands this sentiment. Indeed, it was his understanding of power and authority that was most resonant about his brand of Afro-Marxism. Hampton’s rhetoric targeted not the average working person but the authority figure. He made this clear as he worked his audiences into a righteous frenzy, “I live for the people! I love the people!’ It was all part of his Marxist worldview, that of the haves and have-nots, which held equal footing with his black identity.
As the film details Hampton’s character and purpose, we are acutely aware of the tragedy creeping towards him. His eventual death is depicted literally and without stylisation, following the record established by the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton. It is a fittingly direct ending to a film that explains but does not enthral, informs but does not involve. Because of this, despite its central performance, Judas and the Black Messiah will not join the pantheon of great biopics.
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