When I heard that there was an Oscar-bait bio-pic coming out about Fred Hampton, the assassinated Chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers, I was of course skeptical. Hollywood very, very rarely does justice to the stories of radicals. Not even a few months ago, we saw how Hollywood can butcher stories about radicals with Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. They turned the true story of radicals rioting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in protest of America’s imperial, anti-communist crusade in Vietnam into a dull courtroom drama with liberal grandstanding and all the teeth taken out of the subjects’ ideas and messages. Keeping my recent experience watching Chicago 7 in mind, I watched Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah expecting to see one of the greatest socialist organizers in American history turned into some kumbaya liberal. But, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by Judas and the Black Messiah.
The film is about how an FBI informant named William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield) infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, headed by Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), in order to pass along intelligence and eventually collaborate in Hampton’s assassination. Kaluuya and Stanfield give two powerhouse performances that I’d deem as two of the best I’ve seen so far during the extended 2020/2021 awards season. Additionally, Shaka King’s direction, along with the screenplay he wrote with Kenny and Keith Lucas and Will Berson, create a very strong combination. King was able to bring out great performances from his entire ensemble and the film as a whole feels very cohesive and smooth. The screenplay stayed very true to Fred Hampton’s story and obviously made an effort to highlight, rather than obfuscate or water down, Hampton’s explicitly anti-capitalist and communist beliefs. In fact, the film leans so heavily into its subject’s radicalism that toward the very end of the film’s credits we see an illustration with three raised fists above the messages “FREE ALL VICTIMS OF POLITICAL OPPRESSION” and “A clenched fist to fallen comrades.” Additionally, the film makes a point of focusing on the FBI’s central role in seeking to undermine the Black Panthers and to assassinate Fred Hampton. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen) is a crucial figure in the film and Hoover the character directly coordinates with the “nice” white liberal FBI agent (played by the uncanny, knock-off version of Matt Damon, Jesse Plemons) who coordinates O’Neal’s work as an informant. In doing so, the film draws a direct line between the FBI and Hampton’s assassination but stops short of critiquing the American police state as a whole.
I only have a handful of major criticisms of the film. First and foremost, the fact that a multi-billion dollar corporate media conglomerate like Warner Bros (owned by AT&T) is now heavily promoting and distributing a film about a Black leftist martyr just doesn’t sit right with me. They probably made a bet that they could get some Oscars from the film and decided to either overlook or capitalize off the film’s radical politics, which by my estimation will be a bet that will likely pay off handsomely for them. Warner historically had a reputation as a “liberal bastion” among the Hollywood studios, particularly during Hollywood’s Golden Age and the New Deal era. But, there’s no way in hell that Warner Bros invested millions of dollars into this film simply out of the “goodness of their hearts.” Second, the film tries to take a slightly more neutral perspective, gradually guiding the audience to the conclusions that the filmmakers wanted them to make. While I understand and respect why they chose to take this approach, it causes the film to not be as critical of the law enforcement figures portrayed as they should have been. Third, the cinematography, while serving its baseline purposes and never looking bad per se, isn’t necessarily anything to write home about either.
Given all of this, I give the film four out of five stars. If you want to see the film for yourself, it is currently streaming on HBO Max and showing in theatres where they’re open (please don’t be a dumb ass and try going to a movie theatre during an ongoing global pandemic).