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Judas and the Black Messiah

"...how damned good this film is"

★★★★½ - STUFF 

- One hell of a story, very well told - 

Fred Hampton didn't live to become a household name. Not outside of North America anyway.

Unlike Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, Hampton doesn't feature much in potted histories of what we slightly squeamishly refer to as the “civil rights” movement. (You won't have to look far on YouTube to find any number of Black comedians and commentators righteously skewering that word “civil”.)

But, just like MLK and Malcolm, Fred Hampton was murdered. He was gunned down when he was only 21 years old. Actually, “gunned down” is a misnomer. Hampton was in bed and had been drugged with barbiturates when the police shot him. His murder is classified by most writers as an assassination, carried out as a result of an FBI operation. 

At the time of his death, Hampton was already the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and a deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party. He had united several rival groups under the Black Panther flag and was well on his way to becoming a nationally recognised political leader. Just as King and Malcolm had before him. 

Key to the murder of Hampton was his betrayal by a man he thought he could count on. But William O'Neal – Hampton's head of security – had been recruited by the FBI a few years earlier. Facing jail time for driving a stolen car across state lines, O'Neal agreed to infiltrate the Panthers and work his way into a position of trust, while telling the FBI everything he could about the organisation and its plans. O'Neal was just 17 when he was recruited and 20 when Hampton died. 

Judas and The Black Messiah is writer/director Shaka King's interpretation and staging of Hampton and O'Neal's brief entanglement. The film unfolds via a series of brisk and well-weighted set pieces, giving us something of Hampton's immense personal charisma, while leaving O'Neal an uncertain, unclassifiable figure, always in the shadow of Hampton's presence, charm and oratory.

As played by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Lakeith Stanfield (Uncut Gems), the two men are a study in uncertain opposites, with Hampton seemingly free of doubt, electrifying on the stage and inspiring everyone even while his murder is being set in motion from within. Stanfield's O'Neal seems diffident and ephemeral, although he is bringing down everything around him.

Our awareness of the moral gulf between these men is a constant. Before we even meet Hampton, we know that O'Neal is a traitor. Everything about Judas and The Black Messiah is an inevitability, but shot through with tension.

What was not inevitable, is just how damned good this film is. Shaka King doesn't exactly bring an awe- inspiring reputation to the table, with only the little-seen stoner comedy Newly Weeds on his feature film CV. But, sometimes the right film-maker just has to find the right project, and Judas seems to be King's. 

There is real flair and confidence here, with the narrative spiked with moments of humour and romance that sit naturally and well within it.

Around Kaluuya and Stanfield a strong support cast – including Jesse Plemons as O'Neal's FBI handler, Martin Sheen as Herbert Hoover and Dominique Fishback as Hampton's partner Deborah – do everything asked of them.

But the binary stars of Hampton and O'Neal are all this story needs. As a study in courage brought down by cowardice, and the long aftermath that tragedy always brings, Judas and The Black Messiah is a hell of a story, very well told. Go see it.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

Judas and the Black Messiah is now playing at Light House Cinema!

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