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Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

Thomas Gonzalez reviews Shaka King's electrifying account of leaders and informants in the Black Panther Party

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Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Director: Shaka King
Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
Running Time: 2hr 6min
Rating: 15

In the ever-present wake of a turbulent year for Black Lives Matter, it seems appropriate for the story of Fred Hampton to be reignited and given new air to breathe in 2021. This historical account eerily soundtracks the current zeitgeist. BLM didn’t start with the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain (to name but a few), and it certainly didn’t end with a generous posting of a black square on Instagram. This is a fight for equality that has been happening for generations. Shaka King’s new flick takes an investigative look into the whereabouts and the circumstances leading up to Fred Hampton’s assassination in 1969. The film sheds further light upon the racism which is deeply interwoven within Western society and demonstrates the terrifying power of a pig-headed government with censorship, at any and all costs, on it’s mind.

Judas and the Black Messiah follows the story of William ‘Bill’ O’Neal who, having been offered as a plea deal by the FBI, infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther organisation, led by Chairman Fred Hampton. The story unfolds as we see the way in which the FBI utilise their informants as expendable pawns in a game of politics, capitalising off the financial desperation of blue-collar, black Chicago citizens in the late-60s. They use any means necessary to quash what they deem to be a terrorist organisation.

On the flip side of the coin, King pays tribute to Chairman Hampton and the Panthers, maintaining a poise and a delicacy in the treatment of their legacy. The violent imagery in some of Hampton’s public speeches remains, the kind of imagery that ‘Right and White’ history books will cling on to, but so does the necessity of these messages. Sure, there may be talk of ‘killing pigs,’ but only to emphasise the fatigue of being an ignored and non-existent entity underneath a fascist system. It is also not only the shoot-outs with Police that are being remembered in the film, but also the Panther-led Free Breakfast for School Children programme, the creation of a ‘Rainbow Coalition’ in a unifying movement across all oppressed ethnic communities, and the Panthers’ doctrine of respect towards women. It becomes clear that preconceptions of the Panthers are dangerous and frequently do not paint the entire picture.

We see Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield reunite from their days in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Both actors’ performances in Judas and the Black Messiah have been recognised with an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor for each of them. Kaluuya is a tour de force. He more than fills the large shoes of portraying Chairman Hampton, carrying an air of enormity with him on screen. He manages to create this empowering feeling which washes over when he delivers Hampton’s public speeches; his vocal mimicry is astonishing, almost entirely replicating the eternally rolling forward cadence of the real Hampton.

LaKeith Stanfield has commented on the difficulty he found in having to portray O’Neal. He reports breaking down on set on multiple occasions, due to the guilt he felt in playing this character. Despite these difficulties, Stanfield delivers a stand-out performance. Whilst O’Neal is seen as a traitor by many, I found an element of pity and sympathy being created toward his character. Shaka King discusses in a podcast with IndieWire that there was an attempt by the writers and by LaKeith to demonstrate the apolitical nature of O’Neal – he was not motivated by politics in his role as an FBI informant. He was, in many ways, trapped. He was part of the struggle of the time. His motivation was to try and create a better life for himself. It takes quite some mastery and a high level of skill to create so many dimensions and layers to a character; a set of chops which Stanfield has in apparent abundance.

Whilst Kaluuya and Stanfield are especially strong performances, they by no means run away with the show. Dominique Fishback gives a beautiful voice to Deborah Johnson, Chairman Hampton’s significant other. She gets in touch with the human aspect of Hampton’s messianic personality and, through exposing Fred to his own vulnerabilities, gives him more power and drive than ever. Furthermore, Shaka King’s directorial eye must absolutely be commended. Exposition is spared and instead moments and conversational exchanges inflate any required context. This drops you right into the film and whisks you away on the ride with no seatbelts.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a memorable film. It is engaging, exciting, cerebral and empowering. It is certainly an important film in an age where we begin to question the motives and the actions of those whom we elect to speak for us. Judas and the Black Messiah I hope will stir the people into questioning and inspire change where the people see fit. For, as put by Chairman Hampton himself, ‘where there’s people, there’s power.’

Editor's Note: Judas and the Black Messiah is available to rent on the BFI Player

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