Judas and The Black Messiah Review
A blistering, emotive and utterly engaging movie.
Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is a car thief, caught by the FBI. He strikes a deal with FBI Agent Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) to keep himself out of prison - in return for his freedom, he is tasked with infiltrating the Black Panther Party, and specifically getting close to Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a man described by Hoover as a Black Messiah figure. As Hampton ascends in popularity and influence, uniting other disaffected groups in his wake and falling for a fellow revolutionary in the process, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul.
Judas and The Black Messiah shines a light on a figure that isn’t as prevalent in the social conscious as that of other Black revolutionaries (like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X). Fred Hampton’s tale is a heartbreaking one, and a compelling one. However, director Shaka King correctly recognises that while, as a figure, Hampton is an incredible human who served the cause well, the real complexity in the story comes from Bill O’Neal - a man who ultimately sold out his friend, his race and the cause. The film intersperses towards the end some footage of the real O’Neal maintaining that he was a Panther and part of the cause right up until the release of a PBC documentary highlighting his betrayal, and in many respects one almost believes him. He is a complex character, who will betraying that same cause also aided it immensely. By focusing on Bill, as opposed to Fred, we are both grounded in a more complex tale, and given an outsider’s perspective on Fred’s magnetism.
The film is perfectly paced - never feeling overly long, or outstaying its welcome. Right from the off, with Bill dressed Bogart-esque as he runs a scam on some bar-goers, the film sucks you in, and it never lets you go. Whether it’s the romance between Fred and Deborah, the bromance between Bill and Fred, or the sinister relationship between Bill and Agent Mitchell, the movie grips you from the very first minute, and is as entertaining and interesting as they get.
It’s also a beautifully shot movie. DOP Sean Bobbitt (who has also done films like 12 Years A Slave, Hunger, Shame, The Place Beyond The Pines, and OldBoy) knocks it out of the park with this one. The colour palette is gritty yet romantic, and there are a number of standout shots - O’Neal fleeing the Panther stronghold springs to mind, as does the opening sequence and Hampton’s speech post his prison stint (more on that later).
The supporting cast is uniformly spectacular, withPlemmons, Sheen and Dominique Fishback all giving compelling performances. LaKeith Stanfield in the lead role captures the duality of this character’s nature with aplomb, delivering an outstanding performance that is grimy, ratty, heroic and intriguing all in one. He is both hateable and lovable at the same time.
The real standout, though, is Daniel Kaluuya. Kaluuya delivers a real powerhouse of a performance. Every second on screen is immersive and incredible. In particular, the scene where he returns to his congregation post his brief incarceration, and delivers his ‘I am a revolutionary’ speech, is incredible. Coupled with the up close cinematography, and the shots between Plemmons and Stanfield, Kaluuya’s performance is utterly hair-raising and inspiring. It’s a scene that will stay with you for a long, long time.
This is a tale that needs to be told, listened to and understood, and it’s told in a way that is not only admirable, but utterly inspiring.
This is unmissable cinema. Run don't walk to catch this in the cinema.