Power and purpose in the ambitious Judas and the Black Messiah
Director: Shaka King Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons Running Time: 126 minutes
One of many things that the last year has highlighted is that stories of authorities’ violent treatment of marginalised races are as relevant now as they have ever been. Productions like Mangrove of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, popular television series like Watchmen and Lovecraft County and now Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, were all in production long before the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery in the US further revealed the dangers of state sponsored brutality and injustice. Each production resonates louder in the midst of these stories, but the creators behind them are motivated by something that has spread longer and deeper than our current moment. King looks back to the 60s, and the FBI’s campaign against Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, to communicate ideas that have been current, vibrant and essential for decades. If the system endures, so too must the revolution, and King aims to inspire and enrage in his depiction of the fate of this revolutionary.
Hampton’s refusal to suffer in silence is told here as a morality tale, framed through the actions of FBI informant William O’Neal. With leaders like the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover (played broadly by Martin Sheen) terrified at the increasing influence of the Black Panthers, and in particular Illinois chapter chairman, 21 year old Fred Hampton, efforts to undermine the Party from within are stepped up by the Agency. This leads smalltime scam artist William O’Neal to be brought under the thumb of handler Special Agent Roy Mitchell, who offers him a deal: infiltrate the Panthers, get close to Hampton and feed the FBI intel, in exchange for having his own criminal charges dropped and a few paydays to boot. Tension builds as the more involved O’Neal gets with the Panthers, and the louder Hampton’s voice becomes, the more the FBI want from him and the greater the risk of being caught, King looking more through a Departed style thriller lens than the straightforward biopic.
It’s an investing approach to the material. Not only does it serve to layer tension via the filmmaking into events that are a matter of historical record, its also an assertion for Black filmmaking in Hollywood on a meta level, putting a Civil Rights narrative into the realm of a political thriller, a shift in the way stories like this are told. When it works, it works well. The FBI, frequent heroes in American film, are seen here as Manchurian meddlers. One of a seemingly endless list of roles he was born to play, Jesse Plemons slacks his face into an expression of affable amorality as G-man Mitchell, a man who earnestly believes he’s doing O’Neal (and his country a favour), helpfully offering a rat directions through the maze he’s put it into. Plemons is all blank smiles and affects, his utter lack of interiority set up as a contrast against the more layered O’Neal and Hampton.
The movie’s focus on O’Neal presents a few problems though. In consultation with present-day members of the Hampton family, the script doesn’t overplay the connection between its Judas and Messiah figures, keeping O’Neal as an occasional driver for Hampton and certainly not a close friend. Though historically accurate, this does loosen the threads a little dramatically on screen, and puts more pressure on O’Neal himself to stand out as a character. Though Lakeith Stanfield does great work with the role, giving O’Neal an empathetically skittish sense of despair, the film doesn’t always give him the focus you might imagine from the set up it presents. O’Neal is fairly passive as presented, and bookending clips of the real figure don’t seem to line up with the man as he’s told in between.
The set up is also challenged, if understandably, by the greater hold Hampton and his message have on the filmmakers. In wanting to give a thorough, positive portrayal of a leader cut down well before his prime, the film flies through a greatest hits of Hampton and the Black Panthers virtues, values and achievements: the Free Breakfast for Children programme, the beginnings of the multiracial socialist Rainbow Coalition. But since the structure is mostly tied to O’Neal, it struggles to explore these in much depth, nothing is outright mishandled but there are elements of trying to do too much. It’s a hard problem to work around, because although it can get muddled in focus, the film’s greatest strength is almost certainly the performance of Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton.
Judas and the Black Messiah would be heavily reliant on Kaluuya no matter how well the rest of it hung together. The whole thing would deflate if Hampton’s rousing speeches were insufficiently compelling, but the lead performer commands the viewer’s full attention in these key scenes and throughout. He’s riveting, he considerate enough with his choices to keep the character grounded and human, rather than grandstanding tics. Kaluuya spent weeks reading through Black Panther materials in preparation for the part and the sense of gravitas he carries through that pairs perfectly with the actor’s arresting physicality, heavy steps and a booming voice. The speeches are perfect award reel material, but Kaluuya’s best work is done in quieter scenes, and he has a perfect partner for those in the impressive Dominique Fishback.
Fishback plays Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri), and both she and the film give the character much more weight than the standard thankless “famous man’s partner” role. She’s an active and involved Party member and Fishback plays her with a strength and purporse that catches the eye amongst more famous male counterparts. Paired with her, Kaluuya’s body language is more slumped, shy, gentle. The vulnerability and intimacy they show together adds much needed variety and is more confidently directed by King than the film’s muddy action scenes.
Informative and well-acted, Judas and the Black Messiah is an ambitious project, uncompromisingly biting in its voice and a bold strike in how this time period is shown in American films. There are no shots of Jesse Plemons looking contemplatively sad, no wavering in showing the real Black Panthers ahead of the scaremongering propaganda of the mid 20th century. Though it overreaches occasionally, it’s a reach worth grasping for, and the essential performances by Stanfield, Kaluuya and Fishback, well supported by a ringer in Plemons and rising Black stars including Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders ensure the film remains engaging, enraging viewing through a free-flowing runtime. Pointedly blunt, King contrasts the braying, bleating FBI agents as constantly smoking, drinking, overeating extravagantly, while the Panthers distribute food to the underserved. It’s a film about the work, about its possibilities, the dangers of its distribution, and it’s a cinematic offering that puts in its own work capably.(3.5 / 5)