by Aziz Abbas
In only his second feature film, writer, director and producer Shaka King has created a film more relevant today than at any other time in recent history. Judas and the Black Messiah is a profound take on the events leading up to the betrayal of the Black Panther’s Illinois chapter chairman, Fred Hampton in 1969.
The film stars Lakeith Stanfield in a superb performance as the titular “Judas”, William O’Neal, an FBI informant and Black Panther infiltrator; and an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. They are supported by an award nomination-worthy ensemble cast including an impressive Jesse Plemons as an FBI special agent, Roy Mitchell, in charge of handling O’Neal, a scene-stealing Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Fred Hampton’s girlfriend and a swathe of others who collectively bring to the screen a powerful story which commands attention.
The story revolves around the events that bring O’Neal into the fold of the Black Panther’s Illinois chapter where he earns the trust of all the comrades including that of Hampton. Little do they suspect O’Neal is an informant for the FBI as he attempts to avoid imprisonment for his own crimes. As O’Neal becomes more acquainted with his comrades at the chapter – and particularly with Fred, he is more and more torn between his obligations to the FBI and his moral conscience.
The mental anguish that O’Neal endures and the battle of his conscience are beautifully brought to the screen by Stanfield and were it not for a crowded year in the Best Actor nominations, Stanfield would certainly be receiving nods.
The story does not just revolve around O’Neal however. As the title suggests, the other arc to the story is that of the growth of Fred Hampton. Kaluuya humanises Hampton’s character like no one else probably could. It is clear from the outset Kaluuya has studied immensely hard for this role. He brings Hampton’s unique dialogue and speech to the screen in a manner that seems effortless. Similarly, Hampton’s vision for his African American brothers and sisters as well as his passion for justice are made evidently clear. If that was not enough of a tribute to such a revered personality, it is in the scenes between Hampton and Johnson which brings out his humanity and sensitivity.
When all these brilliant attributes of a courageous and passionately steadfast leader are brought to the screen, what is most profound and all the more tragic is in the reading of the film’s epilogue which reveals that Fred Hampton died aged a mere 21 years old. It’s a cold fact that would sit in the minds of all viewers as they leave the theatre. Viewers who would no doubt be contemplating questions that have been asked many times before about matters that continue to be relatable and repeated today.
King’s work brings Spike Lee vibes to the fore and brilliant production values as he weaves a well thought out script against solid performances thanks to his remarkable directing effort. The characters and era are brought to life thanks to King’s direction and Kristan Sprague’s noteworthy editing which sets a fast pace despite a running time of 126 minutes. It really is quite astonishing that this script and film project had been in the making for many years with studio after studio rejecting it on the basis of poor potential at the box office. It’s ironic then that it has been received so well (for the most part) and is so timely in its release.
Much of any criticism has been centered on the choice of Kaluuya – a Briton, to play the role of Hampton, born and raised in Illinois. Critics have claimed that the role should have gone to an American. Kaluuya has responded by saying that although Hampton’s story is an American one, the theme is a unifying one for all Black people.
No matter what the answer is to the casting decision, Judas and the Black Messiah remains a powerful and timely film that calls out to an entire world to be awake to racial injustice.
Judas & The Black Messiah is in cinemas now.
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