The sad reality is that any film dealing with African American issues is going to be seen as timely, but for Judas and the Black Messiah, coming out in a year that saw such anger and disruption for black people makes the film feel all the more urgent.
From the start director Shaka King lays his stall out perfectly, this is to be a true story but not one based entirely on one viewpoint. Despite the provocative title, this narrative about how the FBI bribed politically ambivalent William O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and ultimately lead to the death of their leader Fred Hampton has admiration and sympathy for both men.
Despite being the Judas of the title, LaKeith Stanfield is given a role that is more than just the trojan horse. He’s a man who sees the good life that the system will forever keep out of his grasp. His conversations with Jesse Plemons FBI handler are kept from being one-sided by showing the life O’Neal wishes he could have. Meanwhile, Hampton is played with blistering intensity and charisma by Daniel Kaluuya. When he stands and gives speeches they are rousing, and he channels the energy of someone who even at twenty-one could rally people behind him.
The film is filled with great talent, but none more than Dominique Fishback’s quietly moving portrayal of Deborah Johnson, the woman who falls for Hampton. There’s an interesting look at the role of women in history, and the film manages to make a point that for all of Hampton’s posturing and willingness to die for his cause, he neglects those that he might leave behind and the emotional cost of being a revolutionary.
King along with screenwriter Will Berson is keen to make it clear that there was a moment when Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition could have worked, uniting the Latino, Black and Redneck communities all of whom are kept down by a system enforced by the likes of J. Edgar Hoover (played with relish and a ton of make-up by Martin Sheen). The fury of the film is at the system, and the authority, but not those who are pawns in it either.
The greatest strength of the film, however, is how it fuses these big themes and important story with a lightness of touch. Hampton might be a stern figure, able to walk into a room full of confederate flag waving white people and win their trust, but it also shows him as a human being capable of taking time away from the cause to actually joke and laugh with people. The triumph of the film that by the end you understand why O’Neal did what he did, and you feel for him, while at the same time rallying behind Hampton in his chants of “I am a revolutionary”.
The message of the film is clear, where there’s people, there’s power, and everyone who stands is a revolutionary.
Dir. Shaka King
Scr. Shaka King, Will Gerson
Cast. LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Dominque Fishback, Martin Sheen, Jesse Plemons, Algee Smith, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson
Prd. Charles D. King, Ryan Coogler, Shaka King
DOP. Sean Bobbitt
Music. Mark Isham, Craig Harris
Runtime: 126 minutes
Judas And The Black Messiah will be released in US cinemas and HBO Max on February 12, while it is out in UK cinemas from February 26.