Outstanding and powerful: David Lammy reviews: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Daniel Kaluuya’s portrayal of the leader of the Black Panthers may be breath-taking, but it is his co-star LaKeith Stanfield’s outstanding portrait of betrayal which carries the film
"If you walk through life and don’t help anybody, you haven’t had much of a life.”
Fred Hampton was 21 years-old when he was shot whilst lying in his bed. Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Hampton was living in a first-floor apartment with his eight and a half month-pregnant partner, along with several other members of the revolutionary party. In the early hours of the morning, officers approached the house with a warrant for a weapons search. Claiming to face a barrage of gunfire, the police shot a total of 80 bullets. The residents of the apartment shot one. Fred Hampton and fellow panther member Mark Clark were dead. Four other panther members and two police officers were injured. Seven Panthers were charged with attempted murder.
Daniel Kaluuya powerfully captures the source of Hampton’s rise to prominence: oratorical charisma, painstaking passion and organisational nous. We see this most strikingly in Hampton’s speeches that Kaluuya delivers with hair-raising effect; he says he took up smoking to develop the right kind of grainy timbre. We also see it in Kaluuya’s affective stature when standing up to Chicago’s splintered groups, demanding an end to infighting for the sake of collective power.
Although breath-taking, it is not Kaluuya’s performance that carries the film. Rather, it is that of LaKeith Stanfield, who is reunited with Kaluuya after starring together in Get Out. Through a refreshingly peculiar lens, Judas and the Black Messiah is told primarily through LaKeith’s character, William O’Neal. A Black man arrested for stealing a car, O’Neal is offered a choice: go to prison or become an informant to take down Hampton. Embedding himself further and further inside the FBI’s pocket, whilst visibly growing in affection for Hampton’s revolutionary rhetoric, LaKeith does an outstanding job of capturing the complexity of a man who is both a villain and a victim.
It’s a reminder that underneath the historical struggle for racial equality lies the pain and labour of those whose names we will never know
For a film that is grounded in permanent conflict and tension, there are important moments of tenderness too. One of the most powerful scenes is a conversation between Fred and his partner Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri). Slouched on the floor, Dominique Fishback’s character reluctantly tells Fred that his belief that he will “die a revolutionary” provides little comfort whilst she is pregnant with his child. It’s a reminder that underneath the historical struggle for racial equality lies the pain and labour of those whose names we will never know.
In the final scene, Deborah is sitting on top of Fred trying to wake him up as the officers raid their apartment. She does so in vain, as O’Neill has already drugged him with a sedative as part of the operation. You can see her heart break as she makes the decision to leave Fred behind. In doing so, she saves their child, who was born 25 days after his father’s death. After the Black Panther Party eventually dissolved, an organisation was founded by its descendants to keep Hampton’s legacy alive. Its name is the Black Panther Party Cubs. Its chairman is Fred Hampton Junior.
David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham and shadow justice secretary
Judas and the Black Messiah: Directed by Shaka King
Broadcaster: Amazon Prime
Best Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya