In December of 1969, 21-year-old Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, was shot and killed in his bed during a raid by the police and the FBI. In the eyes of the American government—specifically FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover—he was a threat to society, and as such, killing him was an acceptable course of action.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, released in October on Netflix, touches on that moment in history—in that film, Hampton (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) appears to support Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was the national chairman of the Black Panther Party and the case’s temporary eighth defendant—but largely glosses over it. Arguably, the brevity of Hampton’s appearance is an inevitable side effect of Hampton and Seale being just one part of an ensemble story but points to the weaknesses of Sorkin’s movie.
Shaka King’s new film Judas and the Black Messiah, debuting in theaters and on HBO Max less than six months after The Trial of the Chicago 7, focuses specifically on the three years leading up to Hampton’s assassination. It follows Hampton and William O’Neal, the petty criminal–turned–FBI informant who was instrumental in Hampton’s murder, as the two men get to know each other, and O’Neal struggles with the task he’s been put up to. In that sense, the movie acts as a corrective for Sorkin’s film. But, more than that, King’s film makes a case for itself as necessary viewing in its own right.
The Black Panthers occupy a strange space in The Trial of the Chicago 7; the dramatization of the way Seale was treated in court (denied a lawyer, bound and gagged, beaten by the attending police) and the mention of Hampton’s murder exist almost as a means to an end. What Seale goes through—and what happens to Hampton off screen—serves the narrative, which focuses on the white protesters known as the Chicago Seven, more than furthering Seale’s and Hampton’s respective stories. Sorkin seems to recognize that, as, in a key scene, Seale asks Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), “Your life, it’s a ‘fuck you’ to your father, right? A little? And you can see how that’s different from a rope on a tree?”
But recognition of the fact that the Black characters have been marginalized doesn’t ultimately change the fact that they’re on the sidelines. In Adam Nayman’s review for the Ringer, he accused Sorkin of “[mobilizing] Black suffering to trouble the consciences of white characters,” writing, “After placing his tragic, defiant African American character on display so that we can shake our heads at his treatment, the director is free to return to the seriocomic bickering between movie stars that is his specialty.”
Where Hampton’s presence and impact are fleeting in Sorkin’s film, he’s front and center in Judas and the Black Messiah, which stars Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as O’Neal. Neither man is turned into a caricature or cameo; King, who collaborated with Will Berson and the Lucas brothers on the story, turns both of them into more than just the archetypes that the film’s title suggests. They and their struggles feel real and present, rather than like mouthpieces or means to an end.
King’s film also easily demonstrates how much more complicated the event was than the scant attention it’s paid in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Fred Hampton’s murder was not just an act of violence carried out by white police but also an act accomplished by holding the threat of prison over another Black man’s head. O’Neal was just 17 at the time he was recruited by the FBI to become an informant, and King digs into the lasting effects of what O’Neal facilitated by peppering the film with re-created clips of the one public interview that he gave, a full two decades after Hampton’s death. The older O’Neal, now 40 years old, is composed but gives relatively circumspect answers that belie the turmoil he’s portrayed as having gone through as a young man. His actions can’t be condoned, but his motives can be sympathized with—he didn’t want to go to jail, and the FBI seemed to be offering him a certain sort of freedom. He’s given a car, he’s paid handsomely, and he’s always taken out to nice restaurants to eat when he meets with the agent who’s handling his case. At first, O’Neal seems happy with the arrangement, almost cocky, but as the realities of it all settle in—when he expresses hesitance about going further—it’s made clear that he’s still not a person in their eyes. He’s just a tool.
And Hampton, whose work and significance barely register in Sorkin’s film, burns through the screen here. He’s magnetic when in front of a crowd, and it’s easy to see why people would gravitate to him. But he’s also just a man, as we see in private. When left alone with an admirer (and his soon-to-be romantic partner, Deborah Johnson, played by Dominique Fishback), he’s so much shier than in his public appearances that she can’t help but laugh, telling him that she didn’t expect him to be this way. It’s a sweet moment, and it underscores one of the film’s most powerful scenes: After one of his peers is shot and killed, Hampton visits the man’s mother, who says that, yes, he did kill another man, but “that ain’t all he did … it don’t seem fair that that’s his legacy.”
To wit, if The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a simplification of events, then Judas and the Black Messiah is the expansion and complication of Hampton’s legacy. Yes, Hampton was killed, and yes, O’Neal betrayed him. But there are infinitely more details to their stories, and King tries to get into as many of them as he can, aided by powerhouse performances from his two leads, as well as a remarkable supporting turn from Fishback. Though it’s early in the year, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to name it one of 2021’s best films. It may be one of the year’s most important movies, too, as a work created by Black artists about Black historical figures, and a full telling of the circumstances of and people involved in Fred Hampton’s death rather than a footnote in a white story.