Film review: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The title of the film Judas and the Black Messiah gives us some pretty big hints as to the type of characters we’re about to encounter and how their story might pan out but this is thankfully not some clichéd Christ allegory.

Based on actual events from the late 60’s, the film recounts the remarkable story of African American man and petty criminal Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), his encounter with the messianic Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and his Faustian deal with the FBI to destroy Hampton.  After being busted for stealing a car and mysteriously handed over to FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O’Neal is given the unwelcome alternative of going to prison or infiltrating the apparently militant Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party.  Reluctantly accepting the deal, O’Neal’s main target becomes charismatic firebrand Chicago chapter chairman Hampton.  As O’Neal becomes immersed in the Black Panthers’ world and more attuned to their political message, he begins to bitterly regret his decision.

While based on fact, this engrossing, if slow-burn drama falls into the ‘police informant/ undercover cop becomes seduced by the target’ genre, ala Donnie Brasco and soccer hooligan drama ID.  Consequently, rather than complex plot developments, the film is more concerned with the character’s personal and moral conflicts and the environment and culture into which they have been tenuously placed.

The film provides insights into the Black Panthers’ Maoist ideology, campaign and propaganda methods and their social achievements; they actually set up soup kitchens, schools and free medical clinics in black communities.  While the film is clearly in the Black Panthers’ corner, it doesn’t sugar-coat their world, showing that they were often heavily armed and prepared to use those weapons in combat with the police.  The film is also candid about the police’s often brutal methods in trying to bring down the Panthers.

The film shows Hampton to be a fascinating character.  Only 21, he gave thunderous speeches promoting black consciousness and revolution. While some of his fiery catchphrases would, these days, be recognised as populist political sloganeering, his passion for bettering the lives of his community was undeniable.  Hampton attempted to unite oppressed people across Chicago, beginning with black gangs before establishing what he called a rainbow coalition of black, white and Hispanic poor.  There’s a scene where he tries to forge a union of the prominent black gangs that recalls The Warriors and suggests a similar real-life incident may have influenced that 70’s cult film.

Although his conversational language is occasionally hard to follow, Daniel Kaluuya is terrific as Hampton.  He delivers Hampton’s political speeches with a confronting evangelical power but shows him to be a reserved, thoughtful even charmingly awkward person in private.  Lakeith Stanfield is also excellent as Bill O’Neal. Even though he’s substantially older than the teenage Bill O’Neal was at the time, Stanfield completely inhabits the character,  convincingly portraying O’Neal’s transition from someone casually disconnected from black politics to a man forced to confront the reality of his life as an African American.

Despite the two leads’ fine individual performances, an element of the film that feels underdone is the relationship between O’Neal and Hampton.  Even though O’Neal rises through the ranks and becomes one of Fred’s lieutenants, the film doesn’t show them in close contact very much and doesn’t create a particularly powerful bond between them; the real relationships here are between Fred and his no-nonsense girlfriend Deborah (a wonderful Dominique Fishback) and between O’Neal and FBI agent Mitchell.  Also, O’Neal doesn’t have quite the sense of anguish we might expect from someone compelled to betray a leader whom he increasingly admires; he’s more concerned about being caught out by the Panthers or locked up by the feds than he is about sacrificing his leader.  Consequently, there’s an emotional component missing from this film – something that was pivotal, for example, in the relationship between Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Where the film really succeeds is in conveying the febrile political mood of the time, something best captured in both Hampton’s rousing calls to arms and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoid right-wing rants.  Despite slightly dodgy prosthetic make-up Martin Sheen is chillingly convincing as Hoover giving him a Mephistophelian menace.  Jesse Plemons is also excellent as agent Mitchell bringing a touch of ruthlessness and misguided righteousness to his normal nice guy persona.

With extensive on-screen information at the end of this film, we’re reminded that vexing problems such as police shootings and the economic and social oppression black people faced in the 1960’s are still very much issues today.  It also shows that, through Fred Hampton’s family, his legacy is alive and well.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Shaka King.

Release date: 18th Feb 2021.

Running time: 126 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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