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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
The assassination of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton is one of those historical moments that is hard not to be swept up within the collective list of civil rights horrors during the late 1960s; most obviously the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Played by Daniel Kaluuya, Hampton is brought to life with stunning compassion and humanity in Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah, a man – as the film's very title suggests – who was fatally betrayed by a man he believed was a trusted ally.
That man was William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), whose story the film largely follows. A morally complex figure, first and foremost it is O’Neal’s story, rather than Hamptons –it is indeed O'Neal's conflicted relationship to the civil rights giant that grants the film its enormous power. Only in his late teens, O'Neal is captured by police for stealing cars and impersonating an FBI officer. The FBI offer him a deal: infiltrate the Black Panthers and give them information about Hampton, and the activists more generally, and they won't send him to jail. At first, O'Neal – a man who has little interest in politics – accepts his circumstances and does what he is asked to do. But as he grows closer to Hampton, he sees how he has brought together diverse communities within Chicago who are oppressed and abused by the police. O'Neal's job becomes increasingly more challenging as he weighs his own ethics with the reality of what will happen to him if he changes his mind on being an FBI informer.
Where this all leads for Hampton is all the more shocking, for he was a mere 21 years old at the time of his death. Shaka King reveals that Hampton's death was surrounded by a spectrum of tragedies and abuses of power, all driven by racism and hate with Martin Sheen's J. Edgar Hoover playing a particularly central and grotesque figure in the back room machinations. Judas and the Black Messiah is a film whose focus on racial politics and the horrors of corrupt power is a strong, emotionally compelling tale of humanity with an urgent contemporary message.