Power and revolution embrace the silver screen in a bold story of untold history in Judas and the Black Messiah and this one will grip you from beginning to end.
FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). A career thief, O’Neal revels in the danger of manipulating both his comrades and his handler, Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons).
Hampton’s political prowess grows just as he’s falling in love with fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Meanwhile, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul. Will he align with the forces of good? Or subdue Hampton and The Panthers by any means, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) commands?
Director Shaka King brings to life the true untold story of influential 1960s activist and community leader Fred Hampton and the man who would betray him in Judas and the Black Messiah and this is a piece of cinema that burns with fire. Built out as a dramatic character study of two men, a leader and his betrayer, Judas and the Black Messiah is a deeply gripping work on behalf of King and this one resonates with the conviction of its story. King’s focus is fully on the duelling characters of Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, and his direction and understanding of this narrative leads to a cinematic experience that you can’t look away from.
Alongside his focus on narrative and the complex relationship shared by the characters of Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, King and his immensely talented team re-create 1968 Chicago, Illinois and the fire and revolutionary spirit that gripped it. From location to cinematography, costuming to make-up, and an impressive score on behalf of Mark Isham and Craig Harris, Judas and the Black Messiah comes alive with energy and all of this pulls you further into King’s narrative, which makes the story and its eventual end that much more powerful and emotional to witness.
Giving a firey central performance in Judas and the Black Messiah is Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and his performance is utterly uncompromising. Kaluuya presents Hampton as a man whose character could best be described as a mixture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Che Guevara and George S. Patton. His characterization is that of a general, a man in command who leads from the front and whom utterly believes in the conviction of his cause. Hampton sees it as his duty to liberate the oppressed of Chicago, no matter their skin colour, beliefs or religion, and his political astuteness and strength of command makes him a powerful figure, and one who both questions, and attacks, the corruption at the heart of the status quo that grips the city.
As Fred Hampton, we are seeing Kaluuya at his most commanding, and the performance is utterly transformative for the actor, where he slips away into the performance and all you can see on screen is that of the character of Hampton. Kaluuya’s intensity as Hampton really falls on his focus to bring about change, and his insights into seeing the bigger picture around him lead to some very interesting moments on screen. Kaluuya holds the attention of the screen from the very first time we see him, and his passionate oratory speeches are sure to inspire a new generation of activists to take to the streets for change.
Falling behind Kaluuya’s Hampton and living in his shadow is Lakeith Stanfield as William “Bill” O’Neal, a petty criminal turned FBI informant who infiltrates Hampton’s inner circle and who rapidly climbs the ladder to power beside him….all the while using every opportunity to turn against him. The role of Bill O’Neal is an incredibly impressive performance on behalf of Stanfield, and the actor creates an incredibly complex character who we get to see from every angle.
The key factor to Stanfield’s performance as O’Neal lies in his ability to give this flawed man a deep sense of sympathy, despite his dark actions. O’Neal is essentially nothing more than a liar, a cheat, a betrayer and the principle Judas of the title, but Stanfield and King do not take away that he is also a man, riddled by complexity, bad choices and distorted coercion, and this makes him a very interesting character to watch. Conflict is the base core of Stanfield’s performance as O’Neal and as he is ultimately faced with the betrayal of his leader, a man whom he eventually begins to respect and admire, and we see a man fraught with the consequences of his bad decisions and this leads to some heavy emotions, both for the character and the audience.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a ticking time bomb of a movie, and director Shaka King keeps his audience on their toes the whole way through. The fiery revolutionary spirit of the 1960s is alive and well in this one, and the result is a film that holds you tight from beginning to end. I would also comment that Judas and the Black Messiah is a film whose end result and experience are far different than what I would have first thought of. It’s a film of deep ideas, and examines themes of revolution, power, interpersonal relationships and loyalty and paints a dynamic portrait of the era in which it is set.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a film of immense power and passion and tells the true story of an untold history that needed to reach the masses. It’s the type of film that we very rarely get these days, a heavy and epic portrayal of history that arrives on the big screen with vigour and strength, and audiences will be deeply moved by its story and performances.
Image: Warner Brothers Pictures