Memo to progressive-minded audiences: You might not have heard about Fred Hampton, but J. Edgar Hoover certainly did. Hoover and his army of business-suited FBI men—who tended to look the other way when white organized crime figures performed some of the bloodiest deeds of the 1960s—put a target on the back of Illinois Black Panthers chairman Hampton.
As Judas and the Black Messiah opens, Chicagoan Hampton (blisteringly portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya) and fellow Panthers from Oakland to Harlem are engaged in building political bridges to leftist groups from other communities, with the emphasis on self-defense of their civil rights. The resulting Rainbow Coalition scares the pants off the FBI. In Hoover’s way of thinking, the unified front of Black, Latino and working-class whites is one step away from total anarchy.
Immediately after the bitter Chicago 7 trial in 1969, the politically stirred-up Panthers, Young Lords and Young Patriots (no relation to contemporary white racists) are in no mood to be pushed around by overbearing cops. Following the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Hampton becomes the FBI’s number-one “Black Messiah,” a mocking racist coinage synonymous with “Rabble Rouser.” He has to be stopped. So the FBI rents an undercover snitch.
Filmmaker Shaka King’s action-packed account of the Hampton-FBI-Chicago PD death struggle is one of the most powerful, provocative political dramas in years. Under King’s direction, the screenplay he wrote with Will Berson and brothers Kenneth and Keith Lucas dives deeply into Hampton’s charismatic personality, beyond the still-shocking details of his cowardly assassination. Actor Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) is matched up against the Judas, a car thief-turned-provocateur named William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, also from Get Out) and a superb cast of stressed-out characters, all locked in a heavily armed Richard Nixon–Vietnam War pressure cooker.
Everyone has their reasons. College-educated Hampton, a fiery and persuasive speaker, gets dissed by a gangbanger for using “million-dollar words,” but his diligent political homework leads him to his “house on fire” analogy. Panther Deborah Johnson’s (Dominique Fishback) relationship with Hampton begins with: “Do you like poetry?” His comeback to that is a quote from Che Guevara. Meanwhile, two-faced O’Neal rolls over and joins the federal COINTELPRO program, posing as a Panther—it’s either that or prison. He is tormented by “I’m not a rat” nightmares. Aside from Hampton’s isolated moments of reflection—his “tired of being brave” scene with Jake’s mother (movingly portrayed by Alysia Joy Powell) stands out—no other character is given enough time to stop and look around.
The other side is every bit as ugly as the “vicious, avaricious pigs” always cited in Panther speeches. Hoover is played by Martin Sheen as a non-stop frother, hell-bent on killing all “agitators.” In his makeup the actor bears an astounding resemblance to then-Chicago-mayor Richard J. Daley, jowls and all. But the creepiest cop is Jesse Plemons’ Special Agent Roy Mitchell, contentedly eating his steak dinner while O’Neal squirms.
The climactic scene lasts about three minutes, the time it took police to break into the Panther house at 4:45am and spray 99 shots at their sleeping victims. Hampton’s blood-soaked mattress remained behind as evidence, but no one at City Hall seemed interested. Among the survivors was Fred Hampton Jr., as yet unborn and safe inside his mother’s womb, who later ended up giving his blessing to producers King and Ryan Coogler. See this film, and never forget.
In theaters and on HBO Max.