What I have had to relearn about the 1960s as a decade in American politics has been infinite. I was taught the usual schtick in elementary school – Dr. King good, violence bad. In high school I remember reading Malcolm X’s essay “Learning to Read.” Thinking about it all these years later I should have realized what Black liberation was about a long time ago. Everyone is glad to recall the fight for Civil Rights, but never the ultimately failed movements for social justice and reform that occurred as assassinations of prominent Black leaders began.
Judas and the Black Messiah might be a biopic of legendary Black Panther Fred Hampton, but it is also an attempt by writer and director Shaka King to reeducate the masses on what the Panthers fought for with the scale of a full blown historical epic rivaling even the most prestigious pieces of the past decade. The film calls back to (or is at least reminiscent of) films from the mid twentieth century that took on these issues when they were originally contemporary. Two in particular come to mind: Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 and Jules Dassin’s Uptight, films respectively about the prison system and Black revolution. Both are reactionary and incendiary photographs of their time, but neither can tell the whole story. Siegel’s film fills Folsom Prison with white men and never engages in the disparities Black prisoners faced. Though Dassin’s film is sympathetic to the Black revolution, the narrative is so tightly contained that you would think they were only a growing militia. From the beginning, we see Hampton working in programs to feed hungry children in Chicago, and later in the movie he works to build bridges between oppressed communities of all kinds and form the Rainbow Coalition.
This is not just Fred Hampton’s story though. To discuss the film properly we must look at the story of William O’Neal, a petty thief working with the FBI to keep himself out of jail. The FBI agent supervising him has his own struggles, as he begins to wonder if his loyalties truly lie with the agency indoctrinating him. These three central players form the full narrative of Judas and the Black Messiah. The narrative flashes between Fred’s personal life, Bill’s briefings with Agent Mitchell, and the meetings of the Panthers when the two men come together. Bill is barely keeping himself together from the very beginning, struggling to join the Panthers then struggling when the time comes to betray them. Lakeith Stanfield communicates this anxiety effortlessly, a performance on top of a performance You can tell all throughout that Bill is struggling to keep up the act, whether it is his initiation into the Panthers or when Fred’s words start to truly motivate him. Jesse Plemons’s careful and calculating FBI agent is equally menacing and sympathetic, a white man with so much occupational exposure to the Panthers that he begins questioning if they’re really a threat at all. Dominique Fishback also gives a great performance as Debra Johnson, another Panther and activist in her own right that became Fred’s lover. Then, of course there’s Daniel Kaluuya as the man himself: Fred Hampton. Kaluuya carries an immense weight, the camera barely able to keep up with him during his impassioned speeches to the Panthers and the Coalition. He is furious yet caring, gentle yet titanic. If King’s complete control over the film is its main draw, then Kaluuya’s wild energy is the secret weapon.
What I didn’t expect from this film was just how large it would be. There are plenty of riveting action sequences right from the start, and scenes of nail biting tension all the way to the end. It’s a big and bold movie, with loud gunfights and an even louder score of booming soul music arranged wonderfully by Mark Isham and Craig Harris. It’s grand in structure too, feeling like a sprawling narrative even at a concise two hours. It blends both King’s masterful work with interviews with the real life Bill from documentary American Revolution 2, and the final anecdotes delivered by the real man are just as haunting as the dramatic recreations. As things come to an abrupt and screeching halt by the end of the film, one can only be saddened and shocked by how little time has passed. The film ends coldly, the audience never given time to mourn a time period that in reality has not truly ended. To say Fred Hampton’s story is history is an inaccuracy. His story is current, and painfully so.