Judas and the Black Messiah
In the final moments of Judas and the Black Messiah, director Shaka King cuts back to the real documentary footage William O’Neal, the “Judas” figure of this betrayal drama, who says: “At least I had a point of view. I was dedicated”. King’s film not only struggles to dramatise that dedication but reduces the depth in the period’s history and figures to the simplicity of its analogous title.
When O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) impersonates a federal agent to steal a car on the Chicago South Side, he’d never guess he’d become an asset of the bureau for real. With COINTELPro Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) hanging lengthy prison sentences over his head, O’Neal is forced to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the rising Black Panther movement. With young firebrand Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in the sights of the bureau’s head J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), the antihero must undermine the movement and seemingly lose his soul in the process.
King’s decidedly-not “Fred Hampton biopic” has a nervy edge. His muscular direction has real propulsive spikes in the tense atmosphere created by Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, punctuated further by Mark Isham and Craig Harris’s moody score. It’s an unflinching exposure into a frightening period of state-sanctioned domestic terrorism.
Yet, King’s screenplay – co-written by Will Berson – just can’t make the central figures compelling. O’Neal is written flat as a tortured tool of the state who lacks any real convictions of his own. It isn’t really helped by Stanfield, as he gives the character a trembling, shifty persona that starts to strain credibility when adopted in almost every scene. Yet, the actor’s eyes do convey the impression there is a conscience crumbling inside, especially when trapped in lunch-time liaisons with Plemons. Likewise, Kaluuya captures the rhythm and energy of Hampton’s rhetoric and presence – especially in those rousing orations – but the performance peters out in the private moments with Stanfield or Dominique Fishback (who plays Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson with quiet pride). The actors and director are devoted but the screenplay isn’t probing enough with its subjects to make this story gripping.
The movie certainly contests the criticism that the Panthers were extreme or excessive, but the scantiness of the filmmaker’s vision dampens the movement’s significance to mere tragic disciples of one charismatic shepherd. There’s little power given to Hampton and O’Neal, let alone the people.
Judas and the Black Messiah is released nationwide on 26th February 2021.
Watch the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah here: