Judas and the Black Messiah premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival on Feb. 1. The film will be in theaters on Feb. 12, as well as available on HBO Max for 31 days from theatrical release.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a muscular crime thriller based on the true story of William O’Neal, the man who worked as an FBI informant for years and betrayed Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was killed by Chicago police officers during a raid on his home on a bitterly cold December night in 1969. 

Since the trailer’s release in August 2020, Judas and the Black Messiah has been a highly anticipated film, especially for Black Chicagoans. Today, more than 50 years after Hampton’s horrifying assassination, his and the Black Panther Party’s legacy of community service and political organizing still looms large over Chicago, despite the city’s various attempts to erase it. 

The Panther Party’s headquarters on 2350 W. Madison has since been demolished and a Walgreen’s now stands in its place. Hampton’s apartment at 2337 W. Monroe was demolished after the raid and now there’s a new apartment building there, and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) influenced a 2006 City Council decision not to name the street in Hampton’s honor. 

For Chicagoans, Judas and the Black Messiah was on tap to be a much-needed corrective to the historical record, which has often ignored Hampton’s contributions and his transformational leadership in the city.

The film is directed by Sundance alum Shaka King, who has described the two-hour film in interviews as “The Departed set inside the world of COINTELPRO.” It is an intriguing concept. And this is a well-paced, well-crafted movie, lensed beautifully by director of photography Sean Bobbit, marked by raw natural light in stairwells, warehouses, car interiors, and cramped offices, and ambient light on dark streets and in smoky bars, giving it the look of classic 1970s crime thrillers such as Mean Streets and The French Connection

The score is also compelling, composed of jazz, soul, and funk from the late 1960s. It also blends real and fictional archival footage, interspersing interviews of O’Neal as a much older man, reflecting on what he did throughout 1968 and 1969. 

Although the trailer hinted at Judas and the Black Messiah being a biopic of Hampton’s ascension within the Black Panther Party, it’s actually an examination of O’Neal, the one who gave the police the floor plans to Hampton’s apartment, where he was shot while he slept with his pregnant partner Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri) lying by his side. 

In the film, LaKeith Stanfield plays O’Neal with a mournful, haunted quality. He is twitchy, jumpy, full of nervous energy and he becomes increasingly on edge and paranoid as the story propels itself towards its horrifying ending.

However, the O’Neal portrayed here is a bit of a cipher — did he do what he did out of sheer fear of going to prison? Did he just want the money and a taste of the good life? Did he get a thrill out of getting people to trust him while he fed their information to the FBI? Did he actually feel any remorse for the role he played not only in the death of Hampton but of Mark Clark, who was also killed in the same raid? 

It’s hard to tell, and the film doesn’t give viewers a definitive answer — which makes for a compelling if sometimes frustrating viewing experience. The film first introduces O’Neal as a much older man in 1989, sitting down to be interviewed for an episode of the 14-part documentary Eyes on the Prize before the story jumps back to 1968, when he saunters into a bar, dressed in a trenchcoat and fedora like a detective in a 1940s film noir, and robs some car keys and steals someone’s car while impersonating an FBI agent, in a sequence scored by Roland Kirk’s discordant saxophones on “The Inflated Tear.”

Lakeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.

That impersonation is what lands O’Neal in trouble with the FBI. Special Agent Roy Mitchell, played with chilling matter-of-fact cruelty by Jesse Plemons, represents the limits of white centrism and white liberals of that time. 

While guiding O’Neal through his infiltration, Mitchell blithely (and erroneously) tells him that the Black Panthers and KKK are two sides of the same coin, equally dangerous threats that need to be neutralized. 

At one point he tells O’Neal, “I’m all for civil rights but you can’t cheat your way to equality,” which recalls the FBI labeling Black activists and organizers as “Black Identity Extremists” in 2017, all the while ignoring police brutality and white supremacist groups, whose violent extremism eventually culminated in the deadly breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It’s a moment that makes Black folks’ blood run cold. 

“I wasn’t one of those armchair revolutionaries, one of those people who want to sit back now and judge the actions or inactions of people when they sit back on the sidelines and did nothing,” the real-life O’Neal said during his Eyes on the Prize interview, which plays at the end of the film. “At least I had a point of view. I was dedicated. And then I had the courage to put it on the line. And I did.”

Perhaps if we saw more of the socio-economic circumstances that led to O’Neal feeling he had no choice but to hustle, rob, and steal, and what led him to feel as though he was not a part of the Black community — specifically the Black freedom movement —that he was endangering, the film would give a better view into his motivations for cooperating with the FBI (I don’t mean to be flippant about being incarcerated but did O’Neal really cause two deaths and sabotage an entire movement to avoid a five-year prison sentence?). And perhaps the frustration also comes from knowing that in our own lives, the people we make ourselves vulnerable to are the most capable of profound acts of betrayal. 

As O’Neal infiltrates the Black Panther Party on behalf of the FBI, the film weaves us through the last year of Hampton’s life. British actor Daniel Kaluuya gives a fully realized performance as Hampton. Even though physically he doesn’t resemble Hampton, Kaluuya embodies his unique vocal cadence and body language. He brings not only a clear-eyed ferocity to the role but deep warmth as well. He is just as quick to tell jokes and provide comfort to his friends and shyly kiss his lover as he is to give fiery speeches about being a revolutionary and declaring that he is willing to die in the name of liberation.

Daniel Kaluuya, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.

During the Judas and the Black Messiah Virtual Summit for the film on Feb. 2, Kaluuya joined Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. on a panel discussion. Kaluuya said he deeply researched his role, having traveled to Chicago to meet with Chairman Fred Jr., and visiting Madison & Keeler in Garfield Park and other streets in North Lawndale, to get a sense of Hampton’s roots to bring authenticity to his own performance. 

“I seen the memorial site. The site has been destroyed. I remember that. Chairman Fred Jr. was explaining to me how the police come and kind of wreck those types of places,” Kaluuya said during the panel. “For me, it was a microcosm of what’s been done for centuries. It’s the destruction of necessary healing from the powers that be.”

Kaluuya also added, “I felt like, yo, I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove. I felt like I am here to connect, and understand your point of view.” 

In the film, director King makes a conscious decision to show that the Panthers were more than men and women in dark leather jackets marching into courthouses with guns, images that have become visual shorthand for the Panthers throughout the years. Instead, King focuses the camera on Hampton providing free breakfast to children, teaching free political education classes, organizing gang members and poor white people alike to recognize their collective political power, and speaking out against the vagaries of rampant capitalism and militarism. 

The Black Panther Party isn’t depicted as a gang, but rather as a group of young people trying to meet their community’s basic needs, needs that weren’t being met by politicians elected to represent them. 

But what really upsets FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover in the film, played here in very distracting prosthetics by Martin Sheen, is Hampton’s effectiveness at building a Rainbow Coalition. Hampton, with Kaluuya depicting his grounded sincerity and fearlessness, is as much at ease in a pool hall with Black gangsters as he is in a creaky house filled with poor neo-confederate white people sitting in front of a Confederate flag.

Darrel Britt-Gibson, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.

Hampton is able to get these disparate groups of people to recognize that despite their racial differences, they are united in being politically and economically exploited. And if they unite and organize with each other intentionally, they could transform these political and social institutions and achieve true liberation and equality for everyone.  

Curiously, though, what’s missing from Judas and the Black Messiah — in ways that would illustrate Hampton’s continued influence over the city and perhaps clarify O’Neal’s motivations for his own actions — is Chicago itself. The movie was filmed in Ohio and New York and that gives the film a rather anonymous quality, as though this story could have been set anywhere in America. Obviously, this is not a documentary and artistic liberties will always be taken with cinema. 

But given that Hampton is such an entrenched part of Chicago history, that his life and death shaped the city so much, the film would have fared far better had it made not only the physical landscape but also the political landscape of Chicago an integral part of the story. Chicago has a long history of protest, from pro-labor unions to anti-police brutality actions. People from this city love it enough to constantly fight for it.

In 1968, forces that the Black Panthers and other activists had to face down were enormous—from Mayor Richard J. Daley ordering the National Guard to “shoot to kill” activists during the uprisings following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., machine politics effectively cutting off Black communities from receiving the same economic resources that went to predominantly white communities, the Chicago police engaging in the same brutal and racist tactics that we see in the present day and the media essentially acting as the public relations arm of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), which effectively covered up the true circumstances surrounding Hampton’s death and distorted the legacy of the Panthers for years.

Chicago was essentially a city under siege in 1968, and perhaps a quick nod to showing how O’Neal was affected by this turbulent and unpredictable climate, would have allowed us to better understand his motivations for making the choices that he did.

And there is a direct throughline between the CPD during the summer of 1968 that cracked student protesters’ skulls open in front of the Congress Hotel and the CPD of the 21st century that killed Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald, and brutally beat protesters in the Loop some 50 years later during the summer of 2020.

There is a direct throughline between Mayor Richard J. Daley and the same machine politics that paved the way for former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to cover up McDonald’s death and, among other violent policies, close 50 public schools in predominantly Black areas. 

There is a direct throughline between media reports that repeated the CPD’s lie that Hampton and Clark shot at them and present-day journalists who are only now grappling with the deleterious effects of basing their crime reporting solely on police statements. All of that context is crucial and it is unfortunate that it isn’t presented in this story. 

However, the film is still full of powerful performances, particularly from Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s partner and mother of his child, Deborah Johnson. Fishback manages to portray both the softness and steely resolve of the women in the Black Panther Party in her performance. It comes through most in the scene depicting that fateful raid, which director King handles with respectful restraint. Instead of lingering on Hampton’s death, the camera steadily holds onto Fishback, allowing us to immerse ourselves in her anguish as she hears the gunshots that kill the father of her unborn child. 

And all the while Fishback refuses to cry. She brings that same complexity and quiet power throughout the film, as we watch Johnson fall in love with Hampton, sharing with him her poetry (which Fishback wrote herself), her shy smiles, kisses and warm embraces, along with her anxieties about his safety, reminding us that Hampton was not just an icon but a flesh-and-blood human being. He was someone’s son, someone’s friend, someone’s lover, someone’s father. 

Through Fishback’s performance, the film also highlights that women in the movement had more to consider and more to lose. At nine months pregnant, Johnson doesn’t have the luxury to say her body belongs to the people when she is growing another life inside of hers. 

It is painful to think of how much was stolen not just from Hampton’s community, but from Johnson, who was left to raise her son without his father, and to live with the trauma of her partner’s terrifying death. That story between Hampton and Johnson is one that could have filled the entire run time. 

Even though some crucial historical context around Chicago is missing, Judas and the Black Messiah is a well-crafted film that illuminates Hampton’s extraordinary and too-brief life. And despite its flaws, it doesn’t shy away from how deeply entrenched anti-Black racism is within American society, and shows what happens when, perhaps, that racism becomes internalized within oppressed people. 

It also highlights the danger that comes from the state being able to manipulate Black people into turning on one another and weaponizing that desperation for its own benefit. It’s only a theory. We will never truly know what was happening internally with O’Neal — he died by suicide after running into traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway in 1990—which makes some of the last words spoken in the film, from the real O’Neal in archival footage from the documentary Eyes on the Prize, all the more haunting: “I think I’ll let history speak for me.”

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.