“I… Am… A Revolutionary!” These dominant words will be racing through your brain after Judas and the Black Messiah’s brutal climax. It’s a simple phrase, but its powerful implications have a hopeful universality that is always relevant. Judas and the Black Messiah explores this universal struggle against the powers that be, and the inevitable injustices that those who struggle will face.
The “Black Messiah” of the title is Fred Hampton, the real-life chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was infamously assassinated in 1969 by members of law enforcement. The “Judas” is William O’Neal, an FBI informant embedded within the Black Panthers whose information was vital to Hampton’s bloody downfall.
The audience knowing how the film ends is Judas and the Black Messiah’s greatest asset. It’s what supercharges the film’s runtime and makes the two hours fly by in trilling fashion. The entire film is tinged with a sense of gripping tension, while the two leads are afforded a wealth of character to play with—both men delivering two of the best acting performances of the year.
Daniel Kaluuya (known for his roles in Get Out and Black Panther) completely embodies the memory and mythos of Fred Hampton. Kaluuya’s onscreen charisma and gravitas emulates Hampton’s own, and it’s a real pleasure to see the talented Brit thrive in such an iconic role.
Alongside him stars LaKeith Stanfield (known for Sorry to Bother You and Uncut Gems) as William ‘Bill’ O’Neill, the film’s complex and conflicted central protagonist. Stanfield has arguably the harder role; the immature and cowardly Bill consistently finds himself way over his head, whether in his role as a Black Panther or as the FBI’s inside man. He’s the perfect counter-point to the stoic Hampton, and Stanfield’s ability to communicate O’Neill’s giddy juvenility is pitch perfect.
Whilst the film truly belongs to Kaluuya and Stanfield, excellent performances are given by the rest of the cast. Jesse Plemons is Roy Mitchell, O’Neill’s FBI handler. Plemons continues to impress in this unsettlingly subtle show of power that he comes to hold over O’Neill. Dominique Fishback does well as Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson. She allows Kaluuya to reveal a more personal side to Hampton, and in her own right she is an important part of the story. Martin Sheen’s cameo-like role establishes a podgy and villainous J. Edgar Hoover as the bigoted puppet master of the FBI’s machinations.
Judas and the Black Messiah’s impressively suave re-creation of Chicago in the late 60’s is a perfect setting for the treacherous story. The film’s soundtrack switches from funk and blues period-appropriate classics to an otherworldly percussive score that is key to establishing the unsettling tone.
The stylish and cool nature of the Panthers is frequently undercut by tension; they’re constantly in the firing line. This is a testament to writer-director Shaka King’s supreme understanding of his source material and his filmmaking craft. Certainly, an up-and-coming filmmaker to keep an eye on.
As much as it is a biographical thriller, Judas and the Black Messiah is also a history lesson. Its focus on Hampton’s radical left-wing views is illuminating and refreshing. It sheds light on the perceived double threat that the US government saw in him: not just a communist, but a black communist.
His tragic story, murdered at the age of just twenty-one, is a sobering reminder of the cost of progress. Judas and the Black Messiah excels because of this fact. It conceals a powerful statement within a debonair style and is rightfully being recognised as one of the year’s best films.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful and entertaining education on the Black Panthers and one of their most influential members. For those wanting a history lesson, or a nail-biting examination of treachery, the six-time Oscar nominated film is available to rent now from the BFI Player.
Words by Cameron Blackshaw
Support The Indiependent
We’re trying to raise £200 a month to help cover our operational costs. This includes our ‘Writer of the Month’ awards, where we recognise the amazing work produced by our contributor team. If you’ve enjoyed reading our site, we’d really appreciate it if you could donate to The Indiependent. Whether you can give £1 or £10, you’d be making a huge difference to our small team.