SUNDANCE: “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH”; America is on fire, it sure was then, also

(this film appeared as part of the recent Sundance Film Festival’s selection) Martyrdom. Not everyone deserves it but when someone truly earns the moniker, their life can (or should) change the world.

Director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” is confirmation that Fred Hampton was a true witness to his cause and his community. A man of passion and commitment, he was cut down at twenty-one by a state that feared his strong voice.

Hampton was assassinated in his sleep by Chicago police and the F.B.I. in J. Edgar Hoover’s endless attempt to destroy the Civil Rights movement. Hoover (Martin Sheen, in heavy prosthetics) feared that Hampton was becoming dangerous, the director of the F.B.I. did not want another MLK or Malcolm X.

Daniel Kaluuya (“Babylon”) burns with intensity in a performance that captures Hampton’s ability to bring people into his cause through dishing out the inconvenient truth with the fire of righteousness. When Hampton speaks to a crowd, everyone is at full attention. When Daniel Kaluuya is on screen, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. His is a riveting performance, some of the finest work from his short, but fruitful, career.

The time is 1968 and Fred Hampton is the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. His words are beginning to gain traction and the F.B.I. is getting nervous.

Small-time criminal William O’Neal (a terrific LaKeith Stanfield) is busted for impersonating a Fed while stealing a car.

Jessie Plemmons (proving his mettle, again, as one of our most reliable character actors alive today) is Roy Mitchell, the federal agent who gives O’Neal a choice: do five years in prison for impersonating a Fed or go undercover inside the Black Panther Party so you can snitch on Hampton.


Historical films can be tricky. Important stories like these are too often trivialized and many fall prey to sermonizing and sentimentality (enter Mario Van Peebles’ 1995 “Panther”).

Shaka King, however, proves himself too smart a filmmaker to sanitize his subject, nor does he elevate him to sainthood.

The screenplay by King, Keith Lucas and Will Berson is honesty and tenderness throughout. The script is clever and keeps the narrative arc to less than a year of the rest of Hampton’s life and gets to the complexities of both Hampton and O’Neal while keeping an eye on the travails of the black community circa 1968.

King’s film captures the time perfectly. Cinematographer Sean Babbitt steers clear of artful pans and cheap thrills, holding her steady through every scene, deliberately, and captures both the big and intimate moments, thus leaving plenty of space for unrestrained emotion.

As Deborah Johnson Dominique Fishback is the keeper of the film’s heart; the mother of Hampton’s child and his love, she was there the night he was murdered.

Mark Isham creates his best score in decades. Along with his co-composer Mark Harris, Isham uses jazz-infused horns mixed with understated orchestra queues that enhance, but never overpower, the drama.

Director Shaka King

This is an expansive and electrifying piece that bleeds passion. King fills his film with moments of joy. Some get to the quiet heart of Hampton while others explode with the power of the revolution.

One particularly harrowing sequence shows a standoff between Black Panthers and the Chicago police that turns into a shootout that threatens O’Neal’s cover and his life.

Kristan Sprague’s editing makes the moment almost impossible to watch as insults lead to explosive violence that will become the beginning of the end for the Chicago Panthers and their influence.

Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” is both tribute and reminder, a tribute to a man who fought back against a government that demonized his fight for equality and human rights (and Fred Hampton was willing to die for his beliefs), and a reminder that, as Hampton says in the film, “America is on fire,” and that the fire of racism and civil discord still burns within us.

The film connects the willingness of the police to murder in their pursuit of the destruction of Civil Rights to what is happening in America today.

Over fifty years after the facts the lessons have not been learned. But there are still voices out there, fighting and teaching and the silhouettes of men like Fred Hampton, and others, like him, are dancing in the wind.

Shaka King’s admirable film once again renders Hampton his voice. And Hampton is calling out to us all. Be it in movie theaters, in schools or in the streets, maybe now is the time for revolution.