Judas and the Black Messiah, 2021.
Co-written and directed by Shaka King.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Lil Rey Howery, Martin Sheen, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Dominique Thorne.
The story of Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, who was assassinated in 1969 by a Cook County tactical unit on the orders of the FBI and Chicago Police Department.
The story central to Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is so innately fascinating and continuously relevant that even the most aggressively mediocre hired hack would struggle to screw it up. But Shaka King (Newlyweeds) is certainly no hack, capturing the essence of a devastating black tragedy in exquisitely lean fashion, aided by two central performances primed to lock viewers’ eyes to the screen for all of its snappy 126 minutes.
In 1968, the Black Panther Party is flourishing, establishing social programs for disenfranchised black families in an attempt to “fight capitalism with socialism,” as the chairman of the Panthers’ Illinois chapter, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), puts it.
The FBI, headed up by Machiavellian racist supreme J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), naturally views black prosperity as a threat to the white American status quo, keen instead to brand the Panthers terrorists and cop killers to the general public.
Their path to stemming Hampton’s momentum as a social justice champion catches a lucky break, then, when the FBI arrests William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty criminal who impersonates an FBI agent while robbing a bar. And like that, he’s in the palm of agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), convinced to insinuate himself into Hampton’s inner-circle and gather intel for the Bureau in exchange for a commuted sentence.
Shaka’s film powerfully argues that turning black people against each other might be the ultimate perverse expression of the white mission to undermine black advancement. “A badge is scarier than a gun,” O’Neal tells Mitchell in an early scene, and accepting the obvious, daily threat of police brutality, this fear extends to the sheer insidiousness of the FBI’s desperate scheme to swipe Hampton off the chess board.
There are few lows to which the Bureau aren’t shown to stoop; in one early scene they sew a disinformation campaign by creating flyers intended to breed dissension between the Panthers and adjacent revolutionary outfit The Crowns. In another, we learn that the FBI effectively turns a blind eye to its informants’ off-piste and often highly illegal actions, even murder, if it knocks down another domino in the fight against the Panthers.
And while Hampton was of course eventually felled by the FBI, Shaka underlines the dramatic irony that their attempts to brew distrust ultimately only galvanised the wider revolution. In one fascinating scene, Hampton endeavours to unite the Black Panthers, Crowns, Latino turf-gang The Young Lords, and the leftist-southerner Young Patriots Organisation into his Rainbow Coalition, committed to battling repression and inequality of all colours.
As much as King’s film is a well-wrought social document, it’s also a taut, gamy crime thriller, and one that has more in common with Scorsese’s The Departed than you might expect. If it might seem tacky to compare a harrowing true story to a slice of ultra-violent entertainment, it’s at least one which King himself welcomes, mentioning in a Sundance interview that he plotted to “trojan horse” a history lesson inside his own take on Scorsese’s Oscar-winning crime classic.
From an opening scene where one of O’Neal’s robberies goes horribly wrong, its spurts of action are shot and edited with a kinetic, muscular energy; frantic, yet never overly hurried. Editor Kristan Sprague, who also cut King’s feature debut, expertly nips and tucks the story to be pulsingly urgent at every moment, ensuring that its two-plus hours fly by in a flash.
As ingeniously as King melds educational merit with entertainment value, the real reason to see Judas and the Black Messiah is the two spellbinding performances at the core. As Hampton, Kaluuya is magnetic from moment one, disappearing into his role and never leaving. He spits Hampton’s various rallying cries – particularly his famous “I am a revolutionary!” speech – with a commanding fire, yet also allows us to savour slivers of the man’s great warmth and levity during downtime.
Just as fascinating is Stanfield’s O’Neal, effectively the protagonist of the piece in so much as it is framed by footage of a 1989 interview in which he attempted to explain his actions which led to Hampton’s demise. But despite being the “Judas” of the title, O’Neal is rendered here a complex and, to a point, sympathetic figure, desperate to escape a dire FBI trap which ultimately represents just another layer of institutional racism.
Stanfield masterfully conveys O’Neal’s anxiety as he fears both being rumbled by the Panthers and cut loose by the FBI, punctuated with fits of relieved confidence every time he scarcely sidesteps annihilation.
Plemons is also terrific as his assigned agent Mitchell, a man who so thoroughly believes he’s doing the right thing, telling O’Neal, “You can’t cheat your way to equality, and you certainly can’t shoot your way to it.” Yet there’s an ominous quiet menace to his buddy-buddy work throughout the film, which inevitably gives rise to something more outwardly sinister by its end.
Dominique Fishback, scarcely recognisable here from her performance in last year’s Netflix actioner Project Power, also brings a wealth of humanity and crucially necessary female perspective to proceedings as Hampton’s eventual girlfriend Deborah Johnson. If a lesser film would tell her story strictly through the prism of her relationship with Fred and eventually bearing his child, King focuses as much on her commitment to the cause, holding tight on her expressive, tear-stained face as the man delivers one of his powerhouse speeches.
Really the only whiff among the entire cast is Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover – or rather, the unconvincing makeup poor Mr. Sheen is slathered in. In a film awash in so much gritty plausibility, his rubber-faced FBI Director sticks out like a sore thumb, and surely cannot be preferable to just letting Sheen, a phenomenal actor beyond any doubt, disappear into Hoover on his own acting merits.
Right up to its brilliantly executed, chilling climax, this is a tonally, stylistically adroit historical drama that knows exactly how to press the audience’s buttons while telling a remarkable story; you’ll be left angry yet exhilarated, and informed but probably curious to know more about Hampton’s story. Judas and the Black Messiah is a rich, infuriating history lesson propelled by Shaka King’s nimble direction and phenomenal performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.