The story of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his fateful betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal.
When it comes to The Black Panther Party, The Civil Rights Movement, Fred Hampton, systematic racism, and all the nefarious activities of the FBI, it is a complicated task to sum it all together correctly in one cohesive story. However, director Shaka King was able to accomplish that and so much more. Within his film Judas and The Black Messiah not only was he able to tell a compelling story not taught in mainstream education, but his directing also inspires you to delve even deeper within the research to learn more about all of America’s hidden histories.
With so much information to present, this film specifically focusses on the Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), and the unfortunate betrayal from FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). Early on in the film Shaka is able to pull you into the world of Black oppression right after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He succeeds here with superb editing of real footage of events at the time, and a recreation of the ‘Eyes on the Prize pt. 2’ CBS special that aired in 1989 with LaKeith Stanfield as O’Neal. The casting choice here was perfect. Not only does Stanfield resemble the late traitor to the Black Panthers, he was able to encompass the necessary characteristics of a weasel delivering a magnificent performance that you’ll never forget. When Stanfield was scared of the repercussions that would take place if he didn’t complete his goal I felt his pain, and when he bootlicked the oppressors without a thought I was disgusted. His role was truly frightening, displaying a lost soul with no moral compass, no direction to head towards, or someone to look up to. He did such a fantastic job at playing a character that’s so despicable.
However, he wasn’t the only one that stole the show. Dominique Fishback (Project Power) as Deborah Johnson was another standout within the film. I love how Shaka portrayed her as a young strong fierce presence that spoke her mind, but also a figure that had delight and subtly at all the right moments. When she was on screen you could not help but to smile. She was a breath of fresh air and provided a good balance on screen when the drama was intense. Fishback has her whole career ahead of her, and if she continues to shine the way she did in this film, and the last, fans from all around are in for a treat as she progresses on as a phenomenal actress.
Surprisingly, the supporting cast has a lot to say as well with Ashton Sanders (All Day and a Night, Moonlight) as Jimmy Palmer, and Dominque Thorne as Judy Harmon. These two are brilliant as well on screen, but the icing on the cake surely goes to brother Daniel Kaluuya. He truly does transform into the late great iconic hero Fred Hampton. It’s beyond obvious that Kaluuya did his homework to fulfill this role properly and the man should be proud of himself. He even took on smoking to capture the texture of Fred Hampton’s voice. Not only does that amount of dedication deserve respect, the performance is simply outstanding. Personally, I was worried Kaluuya wouldn’t do the role justice, but I can honestly say that this is easily his best performance to date. He had everything down pack to the core. The walking, the talking, and all the necessary mannerisms to convince any viewing audience. It’s clear that he doesn’t look the part as well as Stanfield does with O’Neal, but when Kaluuya was giving a speech, rallying up the crowd for unity throughout the film, it felt like you were watching Fred in real-time. That just goes to show how amazing it was. The way Kaluuya carried himself, posed, cocked his head to the side, and again just simply speaking was outstanding. It’s early in the year, but if you don’t at least hear about this performance during award season some changes in the selection process may need to take place.
Another great feat Shaka was able to produce was a great soundtrack and/or score. It’s playing in my mind right now as I write this review. Again it too was great and something I would listen to on occasion often. Craig Harris and Mark Isham, the two behind the musical composition, had a few key highlights as well. Within the story, as Fred navigates through Chicago in an attempt to grow his rainbow coalition, every meet-up isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There’re a few moments where tension is high, and these two musicians were able to build the scene out with their music choices that gave the film that extra glare for near perfection.
Another important factor within this film is how it showed the involvement of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), and how this illegal racist white supremacist wave of evil thwarted the benefit and economic growth of Black people across the board. No, it didn’t go over every detail in the one feature, but it made its involvement with evil tactics in the Black Community very clear. The only questionable factor was that of a role from Lil Rel Howery. Hedid a fine job in his performance but the inclusion of his character was a little suspect in regards to the accuracy of whether it was true or false.
Though besides the performances, the FBI, and music choices, Shaka was just simply able to tell a great story giving so much praise to The Black Panthers for who they were and what they stood for. Which was Power to the People, all people. This film is a great showcase to help control the narrative on what the Panthers were all about and quell all of the ridiculous propaganda that still floats around in society today labeling them as some phony terror organization.
Getting more personal, it makes me even prouder to be a Black man, more than I already was. Seeing strong Black men and women standing strong and tall for what they believe in and not bowing down to all surrounding evils was a gift! I’m inspired to learn more about my history and to know more about Fred Hampton, to learn more about all of the positive things he was able to accomplish and also the possible mistakes he and the Panthers may have made. This film is extremely entertaining beyond belief while simultaneously being educational. It’s a film that should be taught in school for its history and for sure will help future generations understand how the powers at be have continued to terrorize certain groups of people for centuries. This is highly recommended, and if watched it’s nearly impossible not to take something positive away from it.