Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King

Stars: Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback

Released from prison after a BS stint for stealing ice cream, charismatic orator and Black Panther Party Chairman Frank Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) steps into the recently burned Chicago HQ to find newly painted walls and freshly carpeted floors. He’s astonished. How? The answer is the people. The neighbourhood. And, sheepishly avoiding the limelight, his security captain Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) who, it is said, “practically lived” there during the repairs.

By this time in the film, we’re already well aware that O’Neal’s commitment to Hampton has conflicted bricolage. He’s an FBI plant. A Judas, as the title insinuates. Through Lakeith Stanfield’s performance we are moved to ask; is his dedication to these refurbishments motivated by the need to atone for his duplicity?

Complexities run deep in Judas and the Black Messiah which arrives within a year of some of the most inspiring and well-documented racially-motivated protests across the globe. Triggered by the unjust (but far from unprecedented) murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police, last year’s surge in activism chimes in harmony with the unrest prickling throughout Shaka King’s film. The finished article arrives now as if in sync with a newly agitated populous. Life and art vibrating at the same itching frequency. The past reaches out to the present and vice versa. There’s something profoundly sad about that; the inertia it exposes. The lack of advancement. It only deepens the struggle and makes the persistence of white bigotry all the more shameful.

Caught impersonating a bureau agent as part of a hustle to steal cars, O’Neal is ‘turned’ by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). O’Neal infiltrates the Black Panthers with Hampton as his target. Get close. Get information. An a-political opportunist, he has no qualms about his assignment. Indeed, Stanfield shows O’Neal as almost prideful of his abilities to run this scam. A sly smile here, a spring in his step there. Hampton doesn’t radicalise O’Neal, but the deeper the mole gets into his persona as a militant, the more troubled he becomes. His ‘awakening’ is exceedingly well choreographed across the story shown here. There’s not a particular ‘Eureka’ moment, just the daily grind of experiencing the war that Hampton speaks of with such fervor. And of experiencing Hampton himself.

Kaluuya may never have been better. His Hampton idolises Martin Luther King and Malcolm X not just for their achievements as pioneers for Civil Rights, but for their martyrdom, too, seeing a kind of purity in it. He yearns to inhabit the same aura of a prophet within his time. There’s a death wish about the way Kaluuya plays him; something that further muddies the waters of how we’re to assess these two men, as though they’re subconsciously aware of each other and are walking predestined steps in an ever-decreasing spiral.

Because of this, two (decidedly white) films spring to mind when watching Judas and the Black Messiah. Firstly, Andrew Dominik’s elegant western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. King and Dominik share a fascination with the ‘coward’ here. The betrayer. And the toll of that betrayal. King saves up an emotional punchline for the closing text of his film, but it lands with as much weight as anything Dominik and his lead Casey Affleck mustered in their equally great film.

The second memory conjured is that of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master – less an examination of betrayal as it is a graceful document of how two men are inexorably drawn to one another and the kinetic friction of two distinct personalities in interplay. The words I’ve used here to describe these touchstones – elegant, graceful – are among the choice adjectives I’d reach for when thinking of King’s own film. Judas and the Black Messiah plays the part of the prestige picture for awards season (1969 is evoked beautifully; everyone is very fashionable; production design is on point), but it has something extra. That bite. That fury. That frustration.

Frustration especially. Frustration because of how O’Neal works against Hampton. Frustration for how the system keeps O’Neal in a pincer. But it’s more than just a Black vs White dynamic. Shockingly odious as Martin Sheen appears in his stint as J. Edgar Hoover here (looking like a beached seal, half rotted already), there’s a political tension beyond race being questioned. O’Neal’s primary motivation – once its established that he’ll avoid jail – is money. He wants things. Visiting the home of Agent Mitchell, he asks him pointedly what his salary is. He’s envious. Meanwhile, Hampton’s lessons to the newly initiated Panthers pointedly address the top-down false promises of capitalism. Judas and the Black Messiah sees the Black Panthers named as terrorists and radicals by the state, by Hoover, by Mitchell. But there’s a stronger sense that O’Neal is already radicalised by the culture of greed intrinsic to American life.

So King’s film is an inquiry into the personalities of two men at a pivot point in modern history, but it is also a drama of conflicting ideals.

It’s interesting to also note that Hampton’s partner Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri and played here wonderfully by Dominique Fishback, fresh off of HBO’s The Deuce) and their son Frank Hampton, Jr served as consultants on the picture. Yet Bill O’Neal is painted with great empathy and warmth, for all his failings. There’s something quietly powerful in that generosity, and it speaks to the sense of integrity that is bound up tightly in this impressive and affecting film.

 

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