Fifty-one years ago, Black Panthers chairman Fred Hampton was assassinated by Chicago police for daring to try and unite African-Americans so they could demand the same rights as their fellow US citizens.
While many have heard of the sad tale, the 21-year-old’s story isn’t been as well-known as the likes of Malcolm X – but all that is set to change following the release of Judas and the Black Messiah.
Hampton’s death is a sad and complicated story of revolution, corruption, and betrayal that has always seen blame lie at the feet of William O’Neal – the FBI informant who helped the assassination take place.
However, Shaka King’s biopic reveals how this is actually a story of two Black men who had their life journeys completed changed thanks to the involvement of white men in power at the time. Hampton was looking for revolutionaries while O’Neal just wanted to stay out of prison.
Queen & Slim actor Daniel Kaluuya stars as Illinois Black Panther Party leader Hampton, while his Get Out co-star LaKeith Stanfield plays O’Neal as we are taken on the journey which saw the ‘rat’ infiltrate the activist party after being recruited by agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons).
The film is one of many projects that have tried to capture part of Hampton’s 21 years on the planet – the most recent being Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7. However, there is no doubt that JATBM will be the definitive retelling of Hampton’s story.
Thanks, in large part, to Daniel Kaluuya’s career-defining performance as the late Black Panthers chairman.
Kaluuya’s talent should not come as a surprise to anyone that has paid attention to his career over the years. Yet, the British actor manages to find a way to take his performance to new levels with a truly captivating portrayal of Hampton.
This is a man whose iconic speeches mean so much to those inspired by him so it is no easy task to bring them to life again in the same manner. But Kaluuya leans into the pressure with ease, delivering Hampton’s rousing and poetic speeches and more tender moments with a level of finesse that solidifies his position as one of the best actors in the business right now.
The film does well to rewrite the twisted narrative that has been put out about Black Panthers over the years, as we see how Hampton was focused on organizing free breakfast programs in his local area, and urging ordinary people of all races to resist capitalism.
The fact J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the American government were so threatened by a young Black man that they had to find a way to take his life is infuriating, the fact they used another Black man to carry out their plan is devastating and the way they went about it is simply heart-breaking.
O’Neal doesn’t have many fans thanks to the decisions he made in his life, but this film reminds us just how awful the situation was for him too.
Like so many people living and working undercover, O’Neal was living in fear every single day. Rats never fare well if discovered by the people they are betraying and it is clear that the informant really did not enjoy his task in the slightest.
Stanfield may not have been drawn to the role of Judas at first, but in many ways, that may have helped elevate his performance. The inner battle O’Neal faces in nearly every scene is tangible, with his panicked expressions and crestfallen eyes telling the story of a man who found himself in a position he could never have expected.
Indeed, as the film plays out it’s hard not to have some empathy for a petty thief who had the misfortune of being the one asked to infiltrate the party. However, as we watch him raise up the ranks and become more and more as a backstabber to his own people, it’s hard not to question how he could keep going with the charade. The way his life ended would indicate he was never quite able to live with the guilt.
As the film ends we are reminded that the world was robbed of an exceptional light amid this ongoing darkness. Denied the chance to see and hear Hampton deliver his messages over the decades like he should have been able to.
Thankfully, in over two hours, viewers are gifted with a biopic that is as close to the real thing as we could hope for.
As the man himself said, ‘You can murder a revolutionary but you can’t murder a revolution. You can murder a freedom fighter but you can’t murder freedom.’
Judas And The Black Messiah will be released in US cinemas and HBO Max on February 12, while it is out in UK cinemas from February 26.