Review: 'Judas And The Black Messiah' (2021) Dir. Shaka King
Director Shaka King presents a semi-biopic of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party of 1968, but with a story that resonates stronger than ever in 2021...
Chicago, 1968. Petty criminal William O'Neall (Stanfield) is arrested after attempting to hijack a car while posing as a federal officer. At the same time, the rising Black Panther Party, led by Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), is on the rise across Illinois.
FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemons) offers to have O'Neal's charges dropped on one condition; O'Neal works for the FBI as an informant. Agreeing, O'Neal works his way into the Black Panthers under Hampton.
Forming bonds with Hampton and his girlfriend Deborah (Fishback), O'Neal risks his life seeing the lengths the law will go to in order to take down Hampton and the Black Panthers, and finds himself at a turning point in history...
Planned and developed since early 2014, this glimpse into a small chapter of Fred Hampton's role in the Illinois Black Panther Party may well be rooted in history, but the story and morals explored ripple out over 50 years later. Relative newcomer to the scene Shaka King directs, produces and co-writes this story that looks at the true story of Hampton's Panthers taking on oppression from the law and society. It's a story about knowing which side of society you want to stand on, and where your view on what is right and what is wrong sits. Answers are never given as to any outcome of such a turning point in black history, because even today there are still no answers as to just what is happening in society.
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield play our lead roles; Kaluuya gives a career best as Hampton, and Stanfield is petty crook turned FBI informant William O'Neal. Hampton and O'Neal are young African-American males, both battling oppression but with different tactics and strengths. King doesn't give us a biopic of the Black Panthers, but of one of the most important figures within the party and events that surrounded him. King makes it very clear through strong acting and drama that this is a story not about African-Americans versus White-Americans, but about exploring how far one will go to uphold morals and self belief. It's a powerful story told without excessive violence or action sequences; Kaluuya and Stanfield are explosive enough with their more than capable talent dealing with such a passionate subject that has been felt throughout 2020 in more ways than one.
Lines blur between right and wrong; there is a underlying amount of tragedy as the narrative progresses and we see the burden carried by young men and women trying to make a difference
The film itself evokes the sharp and slick look of the late 60s, with some sultry cinematography from Sean Bobbitt who uses slow, brooding camera shots to frame out characters in a host of environments. We have cool blue jazz bars, dark urban dwellings and rich, warmly lit places of protest. Each location reflects a little about the situation we see our characters in, but not once do we feel at ease as the story unravels.
Kaluuya and Stanfield are both so powerful in their roles. While Kaluuya has such brooding intensity that dominates the screen, matched by his passionate speeches and rally cries, Stanfield is a ticking timebomb of conflict and loyalty; he wants to stand by his choice to help the FBI, but starts to unravel when he witnesses the Black Panther drive to fight for an end to racial injustice. With body counts rising on both sides of the law, you can see how much was used against the other to insight violence and hate when that was never the main goal.
With strong support from the likes of Jessie Plemons as FBI operative Roy Mitchell, Dominique Fishback as Hampton's girlfriend Dominique Fishback and Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover, each member of this solid cast plays a vital part in exploring the faces behind the story and what drives each to do what they do.
You'll be hard-faced not to be moved by Kaluuya as he marches on for justice and leads his brothers and sisters into dark territory, but never sacrificing his humanity and love for those close to him. It just makes the outcome even more disturbing to witness, and really shine a spotlight on the cracks of society are have just got wider as years go on.
It's a slow burning film with no real moments of sheer suspense or high-octane drama, but it's carried across the two hours by constant strong performances and some really powerful and brutal moments that don't need to be framed as "money shots" or "climaxes" - just chilling, factual drama.
'Judas And The Black Messiah' is strong character drama rooted in history that tells a very important story more relevant today than ever, but feels it could have been even more bolder and explorative in telling it.
'Judas And The Black Messiah' is a co-production between MACRO, Participant, Bron Creative and Proximity