Shaka King’s electric feature charts Black Panther Fred Hampton’s assassination and the deeds of the FBI informant who sealed his fate, Bill O’Neal, with energy and verve. Blessed with the highest calibre performances from its two leads, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is fervid and kinetic. Although a slight narrative imbalance lets some of that energy seep out, the film imparts enduring anger.
Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is a star of the Black Panther Party and one of the prime ‘Black Messiah’ candidates feared by the 1960s US federal establishment – in particular, J. Edgar Hoover (an anxiety dissected effectively in the recent documentary release MLK/FBI). In parallel with Hampton’s growing influence locally in Chicago and nationally, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) – cultivated as an FBI informant by Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – rises through the ranks and becomes the ‘Judas’ to Hampton’s ‘Messiah’ as the feds plot to bring Hampton down.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is at its strongest when the import of the scene allows the King’s filmmaking to rise to the energy of its lead actors’ performances. In the very opening scenes, Bill attempts to hoodwink locals by posing as a federal agent, and the situation spirals out of his control. Stanfield barely conceals Bill’s wide-eyed fear behind his comfort in attempting the deception in the first place. The inventive framing of the subsequent peril and the dynamism with which King films the getaway sets a high bar, one that the film goes on to clear in multiple other instances. However, none of this is flashiness designed to gloss over a thin retelling of Hampton’s betrayal, and the film is more restrained when it needs to be. The technical and tonal harmony has echoes of Steve McQueen’s WIDOWS in the graceful camera moves and, further, the visual resemblance via Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography and the Chicago location.
Still, the film’s most captivating aspects are the central performances and Kaluuya’s as Hampton in particular. Kaluuya’s rhetorical command is mesmerising and commands attention when he is on screen. Stanfield’s portrayal of Bill is necessarily lower-key but no less accomplished, finding its most important expressions in awkward shuffles in seats and darting eyes. Dominique Fishback’s role also generates palpable chemistry with Kaluuya and is vital for the balance of the film. She humanises Hampton, preventing his deployment as a hollow symbol: he was not a ‘messiah’, but a man fighting injustice with rhetoric and radical ideas. That contrast with Bill is crucial to both, as it is hinted he is conflicted, constantly forced to choose an uncaring state over his comrades (even if the very opening scenes highlight his comfort with the use of deception to further himself). He makes his choices with the looming spectre of the damage wrought by a state governed by the likes of Hoover, acquiesced to by Plemons’s Roy, and seeks a place within it.
If the film has any shortcoming, it is that it loses energy when Kaluuya is not in the frame. Around the halfway mark an extended absence becomes notable. Stanfield is as engaging as ever but losing the direct contrast between his closed-off behaviour and Kaluuya’s vocal flamboyance lets the film drift slightly.
There is theological debate about how much free will determined the actions of the biblical Judas Iscariot in betraying his messiah. Shaka King’s film has some empathy for its Judas and instead casts a bigoted state as the larger enemy forcing Bill into corners. JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH doesn’t quite ascend to divine status, but it uses its lead actors’ bright performances to shine a new light on the infernal actions of intolerant institutions.