To understand Shaka King’s based-on-true-event “Judas and the Black Messiah,” you might have to learn what actually happened in the end. On the morning of December 4, 1969, Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, at his 21, was shot nearly 100 bullets to death by Chicago Police. Four other Black Panther members were wounded, and Deborah Johnson, who then eight months pregnant with Hampton’s son, escaped from the opened fire. William O’Neal, Hampton’s security guard, turned out to be the FBI informant who sedated Hampton and provided the floor plan of his apartment. The metaphor can’t be more clear, Hampton was the rising “Black Messiah” and O’Neal was the “Judas” here.

Directing only his second feature, King and his co-writer Will Berson add multiple layers into this Shakespearean film, telling a story of the country’s deep-rooted racism that causes one man to betray another. Hampton (played by this year Oscars nominee Daniel Kaluuya) is, quote, a “revolutionary,” and O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield, also nominated for Oscars) is a different man who becomes an informant just to stay out of prison, yet their paths collide and destroy both of their lives. The murder of Hampton was very briefly mentioned last year in Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom historical drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Hampton is played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film), however, in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” you’ll see King vividly tells the story of Hampton’s life, the people, and places around him mainly via O’Neal’s eyes.

From the career-defining performances of both Kaluuya and Stanfield, the film sparks a very raw emotion that will make you feel frustrated and extremely rage at the racism that still rips society to pieces. As Hampton, Kaluuya’s bombastic performance shows the figure’s personality through his gravitational speeches. You’ll literally feel the presence of this real-life person from Kaluuya’s transformation, and look into his soul then sense his anger, confidence, and emotion from every inch of his skin.

On the other hand, Stanfield’s O’Neal is vulnerable through his every expression. Selling his soul to the evil, he is gradually consumed by his own conscience and becomes so confusing that ends up being trapped in his own tragedy. From scene to scene, he gives himself fully into this conflicted person haunted by guilt from the slightest gestures in his big eyes, his sorrowful facial and body language.

When the film ends and you feel devastated at the injustice of Hampton’s death, King also makes you have a complex feeling about his betrayer. The film has an incredible passion and, at the same time, brilliantly builds up its timeless power and its relevant timely message. The true Messiah bore the weight of the collective sins, and you can feel his legacy from the film’s most memorable line: “You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder liberation. You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution. And you can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t freedom.”

GRADE: A

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  • Distributor: Warner Bros. and HBO Max
  • Production: BRON Studios, MACRO, Participant, and Proximity
  • Director: Shaka King
  • Writer: Shaka King and Will Berson
  • Producer: Ryan Coogler, Charles D. King, and Shaka King
  • Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, and Martin Sheen
  • “Judas and the Black Messiah” premiered at 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Releases in theaters and streaming on HBO Max Feb. 12, 2021

Read the review in Chinese

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