Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

From Sundance: The Radical Humanity of ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Dir. Shaka King — 4.5 Stars

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah."
Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah."
By Sofia Andrade, Crimson Staff Writer

On Dec. 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department and the F.B.I. On Feb. 1, 2021, writer and director Shaka King premiered a stunning portrait of the chairman at the Sundance Film Festival. Featuring “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a gripping, honest depiction of the Black Panther Party of the late '60s.

The film touches on themes of Black power and dissent, police brutality and racism, self-preservation and solidarity — all made more resonant by their continued relevance today. Shot in grainy, warm-toned footage, “Judas and the Black Messiah” leans into the vintage aestheticism of the ‘60s while its perennial themes anchor the film to the current political moment. Though introduced in part through archival footage and historic reenactments, the film is tied firmly to the realities of the present, as the Movement for Black Lives and the pandemic continuing to expose the many injustices the Panthers fought against for decades.

The film follows Fred Hampton who, by the age of 21, had already grown to prominence in the national party movement and in his home base of Chicago. A skilled orator and organizer, the chairman demanded power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity and calls for radical justice — all of which lead the FBI to brand him as a threat, planting informant William O’Neal (played by Kaluuya’s “Get Out” co-star LaKeith Stanfield) to target Chairman Fred and infiltrate the Panther party.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” paints a compelling portrait of Chairman Fred’s legacy while also centering the man who became infamous for his betrayal. King convincingly humanizing O’Neil into someone audiences can sympathize with on some level, even while the character’s treasonous storyline plunges him deeper into irredeemability.

Kaluuya’s Chairman Fred, on the other end of the spectrum, is larger than life, a portrayal that thus does justice to the chairman’s own trailblazing legacy. Where Stanfield’s O’Neal is unsure of his place in the world, Kaluuya’s Chairman Fred could not be more certain of his calling to serve the people. Embodying the ever-natural leader, Kaluuya’s performance is impeccable, charismatic, compelling, and loving. Indeed, the film’s most powerful moments are those in which King positions Chairman Fred center stage, whether that be in depictions of the Panther rallies where Chairman Fred would inspire others to take up the fight against “the pigs,” or in the more intimate betrayal. King makes evident the systems of oppression that plagued both, while also drawing out the contrasts between Chairman Fred and O’Neal, who in many ways serve as foils to one another. Chairman Fred, for example, lived his life for the people, while O’Neal is shown to work for self-preservation alone.

In a film so laser-focused on restoring the legacy of the Black Panthers, King deliberately uplifts the work of Chairman Fred and the Panthers, who were vilified by the FBI and federal government for decades. Notably, King does so while refusing to filter their rhetoric or their call to direct action for the sake of appeasing white audiences. King is clear in representing the deep harm that racism causes (the police officers, for example, are shown to target, brutalize, and kill the Black Panthers without hesitation), while also providing some hope in the fact that these systems could be dismantled.

— Staff writer Sofia Andrade can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @SofiaAndrade__.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.