Judas And The Black Messiah

****

Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Darrel Britt-Gibson, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King
"Plemons’s performance captures the unease and guilt Mitchell feels, while reminding us that the agent is also putting on a performance during his meetings with O’Neal." | Photo: Glen Wilson/Sundance Institute

About halfway through Judas and the Black Messiah, there’s an absolute show-stopper of a scene. Fred Hampton, channelled by actor Daniel Kaluuya, gives a riveting call-and-response speech in a Chicago church. He cues an African drum section to emphasise the rhythm of his words, which gives the crowd a pulsating sense of excitement, hope and anger. Towards the end, he acknowledges that there are surely police spies in the audience watching and recording him, and offers them what they want:

“Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction. Kill some more pigs, get some more satisfaction. Kill ‘em all, get complete satisfaction.”

Copy picture

It’s easy to see why the community loved Hampton, and why J Edgar Hoover’s FBI was so scared of him. By the time the FBI murdered him at age 21, he’d already become the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, set up programmes to give free breakfast to children, and organised different local gangs to unite to better their communities.

Director Shaka King makes the most of a stellar ensemble of actors to tell Hampton’s story through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, an FBI informant who went deep into the Black Panthers to get intel on their plans and movements. LaKeith Stanfield plays this titular Judas, who agrees to the task in order to avoid getting charged for stealing a car. Stanfield gives the most challenging performance in the film, as O’Neal constantly puts on acts — to the Black Panthers, to the FBI, to himself. As he learns about the movement, first through the lesson that he can’t hit on his sisters in arms, he seems to genuinely become a stronger, more full person. Sometimes, the film sweeps us up so much that we forget he’s not there with full sincerity.

As for the Black Messiah, Kaluuya captures Hampton’s charisma as a person and orator so well, it’s easy to see how he could even inspire those who are betraying him. The filmmakers don’t attempt to neuter the man’s history. He was a revolutionary, and we see that both in his incendiary rhetoric and his efforts to unite and feed poor people in his community. When the movie begins, its characters have already witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and other leaders. It’s difficult to find much reason for them to believe in a peaceful path to justice.

The movie uses the main timeline to pivot between three different stories. One is of the FBI’s surveillance, as agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons) recruits O’Neal into the operation. Then there’s the examination of how Hampton sought to build the unlikely Rainbow Coalition with other marginalised groups, only for the Panthers to descend into violent conflict with the police. And finally, there’s the tragic love story between Fred and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a writer whom he meets during an early speech.

The characters of lesser integrity — including O’Neal and Mitchell — provide a window into what happens when people hold steadfast to their path despite nagging doubts. They both can see signs that the FBI is acting unethically and immorally to various degrees, yet do not challenge what’s happening. This was always going to be a natural point of conflict for O’Neal, who betrays a cause that directly touches his life and background, but we also see behind the scenes of Mitchell’s operation. Martin Sheen cranks up the nastiness as FBI director Hoover, who makes his report increasingly uncomfortable with racist motives and the chilling, oblique final order.

Plemons’s performance captures the unease and guilt Mitchell feels, while reminding us that the agent is also putting on a performance during his meetings with O’Neal. Hampton’s death feels at once inevitable and easily avoidable. Perhaps Hoover would have got the job done without them, but they certainly both fail to do the right thing.

As good as Stanfield and Plemmons are, the informant-contact relationship sometimes feels under-explored, suggesting the writers thought the need to show the characters playing parts was more important than digging into their psyches. In particular, a failed entrapment effort does not see the character impact it deserves.

Regardless, the film provides a consistently riveting look into a moment in US history known for moral ambiguity, bad behaviour by government institutions and dire struggles in the black community.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2021
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Judas And The Black Messiah packshot
The story of FBI informant William O’Neal, who infiltrated the Illinois Black Panther party when J Edgar Hoover feared charismatic leader Chairman Fred Hampton would emerge as a Black Messiah.

Director: Shaka King

Writer: Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth Lucas, Keith Lucas, Will Berson, Shaka King

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff, Caleb Eberhardt, Robert Longstreet

Year: 2021

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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