The challenging and unforgettable 'Judas and the Black Messiah' televises the revolution

Brad Keefe
"Judas and the Black Messiah"

As I looked over my recap of the 10 Sundance Film Festival selections I screened last week, I thought to myself, “It’s only February, and I’ll bet several of these are on my Top 10at the end of the year.

And one film vying for the top of that list is now out for home and theatrical viewing.

Director Shaka King’s historical drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” is biographical, but not a biography. One can’t tell the story of a life in two hours. But King's focus on the intersecting lives of Fred Hampton and William O'Neal is rich, deeply engaging and conveys its righteous anger.

Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is the young Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. At the age of just 21, his ability to unify people is cause for the attention of the FBI.

“Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a Black Messiah.” This directive famously came from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (portrayed in a small role by Martin Sheen).

Enter O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a young man facing jail time for impersonating a federal officer, who is approached by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) with a scheme to turn O’Neal into an informant to get close to Hampton. The end result is the politically motivated assassination of Hampton carried out by the FBI and Chicago Police. The journey there explores why Hampton was such a threat to state power.

Hampton’s revolutionary socialist politics are brought to the forefront, as is his ability to unite his Rainbow Coalition to empower the poor. “Imagine what we can accomplish together,” Hampton tells a powerful gang leader. “We can heal this whole city.”

The Black Panthers are known for their militant politics and as a perpetual bogeyman in the politics of white aggrievement. But King emphasizes Hampton’s charisma and role as a community organizer above all. His ability to unite poor people across racial lines was the true threat he posed to the system that snuffed him out.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

It’s interesting that King and credited storywriters Keith and Kenny Lucas come from comedy backgrounds, which comes out most in the story’s sense of rhythm and propulsion. The movie's two-hour runtime just flies by.

But everyone involved feels the weight of telling the story of Hampton’s death and legacy.

Kaluuya (“Get Out”) is electrifying as Hampton, capturing his ability to highlight the core needs of a community and command every room he’s in. If the historical perspective of his loss doesn’t crush you, you simply aren’t paying attention.

Stanfield somehow may give an even better performance, conveying the dawning weight of O’Neal’s betrayal as Hampton is opening his own eyes.

A uniformly terrific supporting cast includes standout performances by Plemons, emerging as one his generation’s finest actors, and Dominique Fishback in a tender and heartbreaking turn as Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson.

It’s a masterwork of storytelling in a limited scope with a near-perfect ensemble, wrapped in an engaging package that slyly educates and challenges audiences across the board.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is both revelatory and revolutionary. It’s a must-watch film and will remain one of the best of 2021.

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Now playing in theaters and on HBO Max

5 stars out of 5