‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Review: Exploring The Black Panther Party

Allison DeGrushe
Allison DeGrushe
March 27, 2021

Warner Bros.'s latest feature, Judas and the Black Messiah, takes viewers to 1968 Chicago. That’s right, the Black Power era. More specifically, the Black Panther Party. The drama recounts the life of Black activist Fred Hampton. He rose to prominence as the mesmerizing chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.

On December 4, 1969, Fred, 21, and BPP member Mark Clark, 22, were assassinated during a police raid on Fred’s apartment. William O’Neal, an FBI informant within the Illinois BPP, was partially responsible for the ambush.

At the age of 17, O’Neal faced an ultimatum — spend up to five years in jail for his crimes, or become an informant for the FBI. Eventually, “Wild Bill” joined the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, climbed up the ranks, and became head of security. Bill grew close to the members and established a friendship with Fred, only to betray him and cost him his life. All Bill cared about was himself — he wanted to avoid prison time, so he worked with Agent Roy Mitchell to take down Fred Hampton. Bill is a coward, a traitor, and a malicious person.

The film centers on Bill O’Neal, portrayed by the underrated star LaKeith Stanfield, and his decision to destroy Fred Hampton. I’ve seen several of Stanfield’s movies, and let me tell you, he is one of the best. He delivers an incredibly compelling performance, committing himself to the role.

Most of his acting occurs through body language and facial expressions. After the New Haven BPP tortured and killed a “rat” within their chapter, Bill turns visibly pale. His face expresses paranoia and fear after hearing what happened to the man who betrayed the branch. However, like a light switch, Bill immediately starts to laugh and go along with the rest of the Panther members to not blow his cover. At this moment, I knew that LaKeith was giving his all to the portrayal.

At Fred’s welcome home speech, Bill sees Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) in the crowd. Within seconds, Bill went from a confident believer in the fight to nervous. From the dazed look on his face to his body shrinking with insecurity, it was clear how fearful Bill was in that moment.

Bill O’Neal (Stanfield) and Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) at the Welcome Home rally | Warner Bros. Pictures

The most crucial moment in the film comes on the eve of Fred’s demise. As the group huddles around Fred’s apartment, laughing and eating together, Bill is emotionally destroyed. The audience can tell he is fighting with himself — the tears building in his eyes, his body shaking, and his lip quivering. When he goes up to Fred and asks if he wants a refill, he can barely speak because he is so anxious. But, ultimately, Bill follows through with orders, drugs Fred, and walks out the door.

Stanfield shows the progression of O'Neal beautifully. The farther he got involved with the Black Panther Party, the more he yearned to support their cause. However, he never had a political commitment to the group, which he asserts in his only interview, Eyes on the Prize II, which appears in the film through archival footage and Stanfield reenacting.

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton | Warner Bros. Pictures

As the great Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya is extraordinary. He immersed himself in the role entirely, to the point of sounding exactly like the real-life Hampton. He spends most of the film shouting and advocating for change, even teaming up with other underrepresented groups to form the “Rainbow Coalition of oppressed brothers and sisters of all color” in the summer of 1969.

Kaluuya illustrated how powerful Hampton’s presence was and how many people admired his charismatic nature, especially poet Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who falls for him and eventually has his child. The two have undeniable chemistry, which was illuminated from the first time they got together to the moment when Fred was released from prison. Now, that was one of the most sentimental scenes in the entire film. Deborah, with her growing bump, greets Fred, and the two share a sweet moment. When he gets to the car and sees his friends and fellow Black Panther Party members, he couldn’t be happier.

The intensity of Fred’s welcome home speech changed the entire film. This was the scene I was most excited about, and it did not disappoint. Overall, I was mesmerized by Kaluuya’s portrayal — I felt I was witnessing an actual Fred Hampton speech. The speech inspired trust, power, strength. The perfect moment? When everyone raised their fist and became united.

In one of his best performances to date, Kaluuya demonstrated how Fred truly cared about the people and their fight against inequality. Though J. Edgar Hoover believed the Black Panther Party sparked hatred and terror, that was not the case. As a college student taking courses about the African Diaspora and highlighting Black artists during the Black Power Movement, Fred Hampton did what he did to inspire change and influence future movements. He was a go-getter who would die for the people.

Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) and the Illinois BPP meeting with The Crowns | Warner Bros. Pictures

This film is great for diversity in that its stars and crew are members of underrepresented groups. The entire main ensemble is made up of Black individuals, both male and female. Also, director Shaka King, along with story creators Kenny and Keith Lucas, are all Black creators. One of the music composers, Craig Harris, is a Black musician. The music in this film is magnificent, and I will be devoting my entire life to the soundtrack score and the original song “Fight for You” performed by Black/Filipino singer H.E.R.

A group of comedic legends are behind this electrifying biographical drama — Shaka King directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Will Berson, from a story by Berson, King, and Kenneth and Keith Lucas. I've always thought that people with comedic backgrounds do exceptionally well with dramatic work and, this proves to be true. Each artist brought their own flare and experiences to the story and built a narrative that, for the first time, interprets the Black Panther Party truthfully.

Judas and the Black Messiah is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. The film is Rated R for violence and language.