'Judas And The Black Messiah': Daniel Kaluuya Is Electric In Flawed Hampton Biopic [Sundance Review]

Martyrs demark the African-American experience. The documented lineage began with Emmett Till’s murder, his ravaged visage strewn across Jet Magazine’s issues, and continued through Medgar Evers’ assassinations, the four girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and a cruel, etc. Fred Hampton, the gifted Chairman of Chicago’s Black Panther chapter, occupies a space in this timeline. Located just after Malcolm but before the ceaseless stream, we see today.  

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Hampton only lived until twenty-one. His life cut short — by a savage Chicago Police Department raid on his westside home. Amid the questions surrounding his death, the lengthy court battle that followed his murder, and the void left on the Civil Rights landscape, obscured under the mortuary sheet of martyrdom are the other components of his legacy—the daily free meals provided to west side children, the free political education classes, and his rainbow coalition. In his feature-length sophomore effort, “Judas And The Black Messiah,” filmmaker Shaka King (“Newlyweeds“) endeavors to recall Hampton’s life through the eyes of the man who would ultimately betray him, William “Wild Bill” O’Neal. However, in the process separate the film’s unquestionable craft, King crafts a vague manifestation of both Hampton and O’Neal.     

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“Judas,” a narrative concerned with COINTELPRO, initially unfurls under an alluring neo-noir banner. O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a purported gumshoe jacking unwitting suspects of their sweet rides. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (an unsettling Jesse Plemons), after capturing O’Neal, gives the car thief, a man unbeholden to the Civil Rights struggle, a choice: He can either go to jail or turn informant against Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Roy’s strategy is part of the FBI’s larger pernicious goal of destabilizing the Black Power movement. In the words of Hoover (Martin Sheen in grotesque prosthetics), they must halt the rise of a “Black Messiah.” A leader capable of uniting all oppressed people. 

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Though we see this world through O’Neal’s eyes (he embeds himself among the Black Panthers by becoming Hampton’s personal driver), whenever he’s watching Hampton from the wings, delivering his fire and brimstone speeches, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, through his frank compositions yet refined pans, identifies who the real focal point is. He fixes his lens on the hypnotic Kaluuya, never to depart. Because he knows King’s drama, written in conjunction with the Lucas Brothers and Will Berson, is strongest when Kaluuya is on screen.

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Nevertheless, if Kaluuya is the heartbeat, then the assured Dominique Fishback is the film’s fresh breathing lungs. By espousing how he should be so lucky to die for the people, in this film, Hampton recognizes martyrdom. Yet his belief conflicts with the mother of his soon-to-be-born son Deborah Johnson (Fishback). Fishback, put in a supportive spouse role, accomplishes so much with so little. Deborah and Hampton’s burgeoning romance and the brief interest King takes in sketching the chairman’s ideas for a rainbow coalition—combining the anti-war, new-left, and young patriots—could easily be stretched into a movie in itself. But the filmmakers side-steps the opportunity.

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To the detriment of “Judas,” he often side-steps Hampton too. While Kaluuya renders an incredible impression of Hampton’s presence, power, and energy—Kaluuya is simply electric—and when he’s not on screen, the power stops. The jarring, violent shootouts that happen when he’s unseen can’t bring that complexity back. O’Neal, as rendered here, just isn’t as a compelling character.

In employing Wild Bill’s perspective, the filmmakers hope to follow in the footstep of Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Such a treatment for a Hampton biopic, even if tantalizingly ambitious, however, makes little sense. From the earliest days of cinema, when Jesse James Jr. played his father in “Jesse James Under the Black Flag,” to the later interpretations found in “I Shot Jesse James” and “The Long Riders,” the movies have codified the outlaw into American folklore. Dominik meant to separate the outlaw from that context by having a character like Robert Ford, whom audiences had less familiarity with, tell James’ story. But with Hampton, a man rarely featured in cinema, whose legacy remains largely unknown to general audiences, there’s less added advantage to making him into a side character. Especially when so much more could be mined from his rainbow coalition.   

Though Mark Isham and Craig Harris’ woozy shifting distinctive score teases discord, the filmmakers do not further elucidate O’Neal’s acute psychological anguish. His internal struggle, choosing between his newfound love of Hampton and his worshiping of Roy, even with King’s callbacks to O’Neal’s interview on the docuseries “Eyes on the Prize,” is muddled. So Stanfield must fight with one hand tied behind his back to inject O’Neal with greater soul searching. Kaluuya, for his part, almost pulls off the thin storytelling. When he speaks, you want to join his rainbow coalition, even if you’re not completely sure what it is. When he proclaims, “I am a revolutionary,” you feel the revolution, even if what the revolution is isn’t totally communicated.          

I’ve lived on Hampton’s west side—a five-minute walk from the former site of the Black Panthers’ Chicago headquarters, a six-minute stroll from the chairman’s long-ago home, and a block away from the mural dedicated to his memory—for the majority of my life. When I finished “Judas and the Black Messiah,” I felt the urge to walk under the curtains of snow obscuring my neighborhood that January night.

That evening the flakes fell at the rate beyond sight. When the only way to see is to close your eyes and imagine the block you think you know. A Walgreens now stands on the Madison street corner where the Black Panther headquarters once resided. A modern two-story house sits behind a Pete’s Fresh Market, at the location of the long-demolished home authorities raided. Imagination, where his footprints are permanently seared into the snow-covered ground, and the crunch of his heels still echoes, is the only place Hampton’s west side still resides. 

Even with Kristan Sprague‘s fluid yet elusive editing, which seems to lift history from its dusty pages, King has his limits. He cannot revive the chairman’s lucid yet fleeting rainbow coalition dream. Nor reframe Hampton’s legacy as a martyr, a symbol, into humanistic reality. Instead, King hits the limits between cinema and history in his race to the conventional biopic center. Nowhere is that captured more acutely than the inevitable death of Hampton. Photographing Fishback’s foregrounded trembling face, and backgrounding Kaluuya out of focus, in sanitizing yet triggering terms, is recalled through a chillingly limited depth of field. Only to be followed with the tantalizing post-credit material that could (and should) have filled an entire film.

King comes so close to rendering Hampton’s life and legacy anew for a younger generation. But for all of the film’s eloquent crafts and the audacious performances from a deep ensemble, which includes an under-sung Dominique Thorne as Black Panther member Judy Harmon, “Judas And The Black Messiah” doesn’t fully encapsulate either its Judas or its messiah. [B]

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