The Reel Review
This gritty historical drama is based on the true story of petty crook William O’Neal, who became an FBI informant and infiltrated the militant activists of the Illinois Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. Told from his perspective, the film traces the events leading up to the police killing of the group’s 21-year-old leader Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969, as he slept.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a smart, thought provoking film, showing the internal conflict O’Neal (with LaKeith Stanfield as “the Judas”) experiences as he witnesses both the militant organization’s brutality, and its inspiring work in black communities – better housing, kids’ breakfast programs and free medical clinics. As his relationship with the FBI intensifies, he realizes his traitorous role in bringing down someone who had become a friend. Co-writer/director Shaka King (Shrill, High Maintenance) effectively captures the look and vibe of the era, injecting the film with a frenetic energy and poignancy, set to an evocative score.
Daniel Kaluuya (Queen & Slim, Get Out) delivers an electrifying, career-defining performance as Hampton, even recreating Hampton’s distinct dialect, in one of the first major motion pictures to focus on the Black Panthers and their activist mission of self determination. Stanfield’s performance is also compelling, despite a character that isn’t quite as mesmerizing as Kaluuya’s Hampton, as is Dominique Fishback (Project Power, The Hate U Give) as Hampton’s wife. The film’s finalé and closing explainer is absolutely chilling.
• Co-writer/director Shaka King is best known for his 2013 stoner comedy Newlyweeds, and directing work on the Aidy Bryant Hulu series Shrill and HBO’s High Maintenance.
• Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield and Lil Rel Howery worked together in the 2017 horror/thriller Get Out.
• Fred Hampton is buried at Bethel Cemetery in North Louisiana’s Claiborne Parish. His son, Fred Jr., says the gravestone is regularly defaced and riddled with bullet holes by law enforcement officers.