Judas and the Black Messiah
- Emma Simmonds
- 9 March 2021
Daniel Kaluuya is sensational in the fascinating story of Black Panther Fred Hampton and the man who betrayed him
A Golden Globe-winning Daniel Kaluuya is utterly electrifying in this riveting look at revolutionary politics and the most galling of betrayals. It's the story of Fred Hampton, a pivotal figure in the Black Panther Party during the late 60s, who reached across racial and party divides, and the man the FBI sent to observe, undermine and eventually destroy him, Bill O'Neal.
Opening in Chicago, 1968, Atlanta's LaKeith Stanfield plays O'Neal, who we see posing as a Fed early on in order to steal a car – not exactly the smartest ruse. He's arrested and told by a real FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), that he faces a significant prison stretch unless he agrees to infiltrate the Illinois branch of the Black Panthers. We see FBI director J Edgar Hoover (a heavily made-over Martin Sheen) describing the Panthers as 'the single greatest threat to our national security', as he outlines his determination to prevent the rise of a Black messiah figure.
Hampton (Kaluuya) is that figure, a young, charismatic, righteous and persuasive character, who teaches and preaches in a way that magnetises people to his cause. Dominique Fishback (The Deuce, Project Power) is Hampton's speechwriter, fellow activist and eventual partner Deborah Johnson, who talks to him about poetry and challenges him. There are small roles for Moonlight's Ashton Sanders and Get Out's Lil Rel Howery.
We're starting to see a different side of history on film; it feels like progress for the Black Panthers to take centre stage cinematically (after key figures were featured in the recent The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mangrove), while the dirty tricks and racially motivated actions of government agencies are being increasingly spotlighted. Documentaries Billie and MLK/FBI exposed the authorities' pursuit of singer Billie Holiday and civil rights leader Martin Luther King respectively, and Holiday was at the heart of Lee Daniels' recent narrative feature, The United States vs Billie Holiday, which focused specifically on the harassment she experienced at the hands of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Amongst the dastardly tactics we see in this film are the way the FBI sows distrust amongst rival civil rights groups with misinformation and, through O'Neal, tries to convince the Panthers to plant a bomb.
Director Shaka King overlays this incendiary story with plenty of moodily sumptuous period style and strives for authenticity with the characterful, naturalistically performed dialogue – he isn't worried about spelling things out. His script (co-written with Will Berson) isn't always great at illuminating O'Neal's conflict, but Stanfield's anxious turn fills in most of those blanks, while Fishback has some moving moments herself, capturing Deborah's personal turmoil as she falls pregnant with the baby of a firebrand leader, who has promised his life to the people.
It is, however, emphatically Kaluuya's film, this outstanding and versatile Londoner fully inhabits an American icon, showing blistering intensity during Hampton's seminal speeches, and a world of emotion in his eyes during some of the more sensitive scenes. That his character is sometimes side-lined can be frustrating, given that he's the more compelling of the two leads, and the film doesn't make enough out of the men's relationship and Hampton's misplaced trust, but it's fascinating, credible and suitably angry nevertheless. Judas and the Black Messiah builds to a powerful and horrifying conclusion, with the closing captions bringing a dose of further reality and emotion to proceedings. It may well leave you reeling.
Available to watch on premium video on demand from Thu 11 Mar.