If Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 left you wanting to find out more about Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party until he was killed in 1969, Shaka King‘s Judas and the Black Messiah is a place to start. Starring Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as the man who betrayed him, the film begins with the crime that drove Bill O’Neal (Stanfield) to cooperate with the FBI in the first place.
As much as O’Neal is the Judas of the title, though, his story diverges in a number of ways from his Biblical counterpart. Before he betrayed Jesus, Judas was one of the Twelve Disciples. He believed in Jesus and was one of his friends before he turned him over to the Romans. O’Neal, however, wasn’t a member of the Black Panther Party before his arrest for stealing a car and impersonating an FBI officer. He joined the party for the express purpose of getting close to Hampton, so he could inform on him to the authorities. In exchange, FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) promises him he won’t serve jailtime for his earlier offenses and other financial perks.
It wasn’t that O’Neal vehemently opposed the Black Panthers or that he supported them; it was all about survival. Later, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (a heavily made-up Martin Sheen) tries to make a similar argument to Mitchell – in his mind, probably successfully – and, given that Mitchell falls in line, he does get what he wants. But the comparison is so disparate and racist, it shouldn’t even cross someone’s mind to make it.
The other thing that stands out about O’Neal, and sets him apart from the Biblical Judas, is how long he was undercover. Giving the FBI information on Hampton wasn’t a onetime thing. He’d been working with them for months, and in King’s film (which he co-wrote with Will Person, along with story credits for the Lucas Brothers) you get to see what other consequences his actions had, along with the tactics employed by police and the FBI to deliberately brew distrust between the Panthers and other groups in Chicago.
Much has been written, and will be written, about Kaluuya and Stanfield’s performances – and rightfully so – but, hopefully, Dominique Fishback’s tour-de-force turn as Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah, will get some awards recognition. She deserves an Oscar for her work in this movie. As someone who supports the fight, but is also pregnant and watching the father of her child talk about giving up his life for the people, the revolution comes with a lot of mixed emotions and Fishback plays that conflict for all its worth in every scene she’s in. Even when her character isn’t front and center, as is the case during Hampton’s “I Am A Revolutionary” speech, you feel how his words hit her differently than everyone else in the room. King’s decision to hold the camera on her during the raid at the end is crushing.
Craig Harris and Mark Isham have put together an amazing film score for Judas. Every discordant sound gets under your skin and leaves you on edge, and it sounds like nothing else out there.
Judas and the Black Messiah is available now on HBO Max.