For many of us, our introduction to Black Panther Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton began with his bullet-riddled body, a blood-soaked mattress, and a frigid winter night in Chicago. The then- 21-year-old revolutionary was a pillar in one of America's most segregated cities and in the fight for Black justice overall. In Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah, Hampton's (Daniel Kalyuua) brilliance, strength, and charisma are realized. While the film highlights the forces that eventually snuffed out his life, his legacy burns eternal.
Set in 1968, Judas does not open with Hampton, but instead, with William O'Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), a low-level criminal who, after finding himself in the clutches of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), infiltrates the Panthers and weasels his way into Hampton's inner circle. Previous films and documentaries have shown snippets of the Illinois Black Panther Party during this violate time in the country's history. However, this film is perhaps the most complete portrait of who Hampton was as a man, a revolutionary, and an expectant father.
Kalyuua takes full command of Hampton who was a brilliant orator. The narrative also showcases just how desperate the feds were to eliminate him just as they had the brilliant Black minds in the years before. Hampton was even jailed for several months for allegedly stealing $70 worth of ice cream. As O'Neil pushes his way into Hampton's inner circle, using ploys to earn his trust, we get a more extensive understanding of how unsettling this time period was. As much as we learn about Hampton's inner thoughts and private life, Judas is also O'Neil's story.
Though seemly unfazed by his traitorous behavior, Stanfield presents a man who is clearly haunted by his choices. The Photograph actor's brilliance here is how convincing he is on both sides of the coin, at the Panthers headquarters and later in FBI agent Roy Mitchell's (Jesse Plemons) living room. Stanfield's ability to flit between two worlds --clearly more desperate to be in one than the other, is a case study in the duality of Blackness and how the choices that Black people make — right or wrong, are linked not just to our destinies but to our very existence.
What resonates most here is not just the movement that Hampton commanded and how intricately O'Neil was involved in the plot against his life. Instead, King offers his audience a full depiction of who Hampton was as a man. In his youth, Hampton's mother ofter babysat his neighbor, Emmett Till. It was Till's death the decade prior that sparked Hampton's activism. Though sharp and well-spoken, Kalyuua also offers a tender side of Hampton. In Judas, he is a man who could be shy in front of the woman that he loved and who was also ecstatic about fatherhood.
There has been much conversation about Kalyuua's casting in the role since he is not Black American nor does he look like the late activist. Still, as usual, the Get Out actor delivers in the role, and then some. He put on the more brolic man's weight and has the defined cadence and strength that you can only be born with. Moreover, the cast around Kalyuua and Stanfield is outstanding, with actors like Algee Smith, Lil Rel Howery, and Ashton Sanders filling out this world among others.
Yet, it's Dominique Fishback's gut-wrenching performance as Hampton's girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, that's a standout. Though reserved, Fishback is compelling and able to go toe to toe with Kalyuua on more than one occasion. Yet, in the quiet moments, it's almost as if she can see what's in store for her future, but she never cowers. Poignantly, near the film's conclusion, instead of showing Hampton's final moments, King chooses to focus on Fishback's face. As the last gunshots ring out, she stands in a nightdress with a gun pointed toward her pregnant belly; she doesn't even flinch.
Though a bit lengthy, Judas and the Black Messiah is enthralling. King carefully crafts every detail from the costuming to Hampton's reverence of Black women — and Deborah, in particular. The Black women's role in the movement is still often erased in films about this era, it's nice to see King highlight it here. Also, as much as O'Neil played a role in Hampton's murder, the film showcases the lengths the FBI and the Chicago Police Department were willing to for Hampton's demise.
More than anything, what Judas and the Black Messiah presents is a full tapestry of a young man who was truly for the people. It was a journey that put him on a collision course with another Black man. In the end, it cost them both a great deal, but only one remains forever embedded into our history.
Judas and the Black Messiah premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Feb. 1, 2020. The film hits theaters and HBO Max on February 12, 2021.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide