Judas and the Black Messiah Review

Fred+Hampton%2C+the+Chairman+of+the+Illinois+Chapter+of+the+Black+Panther+Party%2C+here+portrayed+by+Daniel+Kaluuya.+

IGN

Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, here portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya.

Agua Becerra

The Black Panther Party, originally named The Black Panther Party of Self Defence, was a black power political organization founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California. The party’s goal was to combat police brutality in their impoverished community by taking armed patrols to follow the police, making sure that the people weren’t being harassed or falsely arrested. They always were within the confines of the law and even brought law books with them to make sure the people knew their rights, directly quote the books if an officer was in violation of the law. 

The 2021 film, Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King, was a film centered around the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. It particularly focused on the lives of William O’Neal, an FBI informant infiltrating the chapter, and Fred Hampton, the chairman of the chapter. In its 2 hours and 6 minutes run time, Judas and the Black Messiah portrays what the Black Panther Party stood for, what they were trying to accomplish, and how the FBI was able to infiltrate the party and destroy it from within.

The film starts off with a montage of cut footages showcasing what the Black Panther Party was about: helping the people. This story is mainly told from the perspective of William O’Neal, who impersonates FBI officers with a fake badge in order to steal cars. He is eventually caught and is given the option of six and a half years in prison or going home and infiltrating the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant. The real-life William O’Neal was only 17 years old when he was arrested in 1966. 

Later, the film introduces you to Chairman Fred Hampton giving a speech, establishing his ideals and what the Black Panther Party does in the following scenes. Fred Hampton is shown teaching a class, handing out pamphlets, and volunteering to give free breakfast for children at one of the Panthers’ programs. The film establishes the tone in the first act. Additionally, it introduces a gang that will be a key player when Fred Hampton forms a coalition, encounters his romantic interest, and develops his political standing on the Panthers.

The atmosphere of Judas and the Black Messiah is masterfully set by loud, explosive percussion that seamlessly fits the rustic night-time city vibes, filling scenes with energy. The clever use of light jazz coupled with tense moments adds to an increasing rise of suspense. The soundtrack of the film is great overall, leaving the audience thinking about tracks long after the credits roll. 

The cinematography by Sean Bobbit is spectacular in this film with striking and bold shots. Specifically, the car ride scenes were composed beautifully and fluidly in action. The bombastic, realistic, and brutal scenes leave no abundance of action. Gunfire in this film has a powerful impact. 

Great action lacks when there aren’t great characters behind them. However, Judas and the Black Messiah proves otherwise. The characters are likeable, emotional, and authentic. Moments between Fred Hampton and his love interest are comedic and charming, building their relationship naturally. The main character, William O’Neal, has anxieties and internal struggles that are interesting and raw. In a dream sequence, for example, the fear and paranoia he has about being outed as an informant is captured and portrayed effortlessly. O’Neal’s faith and camaraderie with his comrades are genuine, with him feeling guilty for having to betray them. 

There are plenty of emotional moments and scenes in this film delivered deeply, making the audience feel for the characters and their struggles. The ending of the film is an emotional gut-punch in its execution. Daniel Kaluuya does an incredibly human performance depicting Fred Hampton in the film and LaKeith Stanfield sells the tense moments as William O’Neal. From a filmmaking standpoint, this film is just exceptionally well made and everything goes together perfectly.

When the trailers first dropped, I admit I was more than skeptical of how they were going to portray the Black Panther Party in this film. Hollywood and the mainstream media are notorious for whitewashing black radicals or painting them in a bad light. Martin Luther King, for example, was a radical socialist who was assassinated, The way they teach King’s story in schools really downplays his leftist politics, and I was concerned this film would do that to the Black Panthers. However, I was delightfully surprised that this was not the case at all. From the very beginning, the film makes it apparent that the Black Panther Party were socialists. I enjoyed all of Fred Hampton’s speeches in the film and I was delighted to see that they truly cared about the spirit of the group with this film. The very first speech you see Fred Hampton do is him explaining the difference between revolution and gradual reform, making it crystal clear that this film had no intention of whitewashing him or his cause. The film also doesn’t shy away from the brutal reality that revolutionaries and freedom fighters do not live long lives due to the racist government they are trying to overthrow. Many Black Panthers were either assassinated, falsely imprisoned, or murdered by the police in real life. The film depicts several of the murders of the members of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and does so to honor and remember them as heroes who fought for the self-determination of black people and the oppressed everywhere. 

The actors in this film are a lot older than their real-life counterparts, William O’Neal was 17 at the time of being arrested, Fred Hampton had only recently turned 21 at the time of his assassination, Mark Clark, another Black Panther, was 22 years old when he was slain in the police raid that killed Fred Hampton, and Jake Winters, also a Black Panther Party member, was only 19 when he was shot dead by the police in a violent shootout. The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist group that fought against police brutality and for the liberation of oppressed people in the United States, and its important civil rights films respect that heritage. As Fred Hampton said, “You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” 

It’s important to honor and remember those who fought in the struggle against police brutality and this racist government. Judas and the Black Messiah does an excellent job in depicting the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and its chairman, Fred Hampton. The film is beautiful, emotional, radical, and generally a wonderful film. I highly recommend it to those who haven’t seen it and to those who would like to learn more about the Black Panther Party and its cause. I recommend reading Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin. Also consider checking out the PBS documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard for the Revolution, the film Panther (1995) directed by Mario Van Peebles, Dr. Curtis Austin’s Ted Talk titled, Black Panthers White Lies. I hope Judas and the Black Messiah and this review helps teach more people about the Black Panther Party, as they are an important part of both local and national history, an inspiration to oppressed people everywhere.