VOD film review: Judas and the Black Messiah
James R | On 11, Mar 2021
Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
“The beat manifests in you, the people,” declares Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) mid-speech in 1960s Chicago. “They can’t stop the party unless they stop the people!” he continues, drawing cheers from an eager, vocal crowd. Among them is William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a member of the Black Panther Party and a secret informant for the FBI plotting Hampton’s downfall.
Judas and the Black Messiah follows O’Neal’s betrayal, channeling such classic undercover flicks as The Departed or Point Break. We see things largely from his perspective, from the moment he’s caught impersonating an FBI agent to steal a car to the point at which he’s impersonating someone else to avoid charges – and pass unnoticed within Hampton’s inner circle. But where the genre is typically rooted in the simple, clear-cut distinction between right and wrong, Shaka King’s propulsive, paranoid thriller finds its strength in being more complicated and nuanced than that; O’Neal’s betrayal is of a movement as much as a figurehead, and he’s full of conflict and denial as he continues with his assignment.
King’s script, co-written with Will Berson, pulls us along with O’Neal as he befriends the young chairman of the Black Panthers Illinois chapter, and ultimately ends up drugging him at the Bureau’s behest. It also lets us stand back and admire Hampton, an icon whose influence and ability to inspire makes him impossible not to root for.
There’s something of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in their double act, and King gives each of his two leads the space to bring their sides of events to vivid, complex life. The always-magnetic Kaluuya deserves every award going for his majestic turn as Hampton, combining a battle-hardened gruffness with an electric determination. Stanfield, meanwhile, delivers a career-best performance as the sympathetic traitor, whose own lack of political engagement makes him an ideal pawn for a calculating, racist institution.
Any potential for real, redeeming friendship, though, is capsized by the insidious presence of Jesse Plemons as FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell, who plays O’Neal against his own interests with a sinister sneer (that disturbing, callous philosophy is reinforced by a Martin Sheen cameo as J Edgar Hoover). In between all these men, Dominique Fishback steals several scenes as Deborah Johnson, the member of the Black Panthers who becomes Hampton’s partner and brings home the human costs of the battle being fought.
And it is undoubtedly a battle, one that has been increasingly mapped out by cinema in the past year, including One Night in Miami, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and MLK/FBI – one of the most powerful moments is a brief pause in Hampton’s thunderous speechmaking for a minute’s silence to remember the loss of party member Jimmy Palmer. DoP Sean Bobbitt, a regular collaborator with Steve McQueen, and composers Mark Isham and Craig Harris capture the escalating stakes of the struggle with a stylish and percussive momentum, ushering events through to a fixed point in history: an armed raid on Hampton’s flat in 1969.
The result is a powerful and urgent ode to a key voice in the fight for civil rights – one that contrasts with poignant footage of the older O’Neal, which bookends the movie. But King wraps all that up in a gripping piece of genre cinema with swaggering, blockbusting confidence; it’s a stomach-churning examination of coercion and systemic oppression and a blistering, visceral tale of revolution and betrayal. The film’s title gives the uninformed a clue as to how it will all end up, but for its remarkable, mesmerising runtime, Judas and the Black Messiah makes historical facts as unpredictable as a Hollywood heist. For two hours, it doesn’t miss a beat.