Directed by: Shaka King
Written by: Will Berson and Shaka King
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback and Martin Sheen
One of the most iconic film scenes of the last decade of cinema is in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) when Daniel Kaluuya’s character Chris accidentally ‘snaps’ Lakeith Stanfield’s character Andre out of a brainwashed trance. ‘Get out!’ Andre screams at him, grabbing him by the lapels ‘Get out!’. Jordan Peele’s ground-breaking horror film is one of the earlier films of a new Black American cinema, which has coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement, ignited across the globe.
In a new film by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah, Stanfield is not so much a harbinger of doom, but a snake the grass for Kaluuya. Stanfield plays real life petty criminal turned FBI informant Bill O’Neal. From the beginning of the film O’Neal gets himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. He is facing six and a half years in jail for grand theft auto and impersonating a police officer. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Plemons) has a better idea. In lieu of prison time, Mitchell enlists O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, Chicago Chapter.
Chairman of this Chapter, Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) is coming under close scrutiny from the FBI. Hampton’s basic political philosophy? There is strength in numbers. Power to the people, and when there’s people there’s power. When O'Neal joins Hampton’s Panther branch, Fred is in the process of uniting the different revolutionary organisations that existed in Chicago around this period. Namely, The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican civil and human rights organisation and The Young Patriots, a group of white working class leftists, in order to form a Rainbow Coalition. King splices these scenes with the FBI setting up COINTELPRO. Martin Sheen has a small supporting role as J. Edgar Hoover, here portrayed as a staunch racist and anti-Communist.
Throughout the film, the audience has to reckon with Lakeith Stanfield’s innate charisma and the sheer moral bankruptcy of his character. His life becomes worse than a prison sentence as he goes deeper and deeper undercover, eventually becoming the Head of Security of the Chicago Black Panther Party. There are echoes of Martin Scorese’s The Departed (2006), not least with Martin Sheen essentially playing the role as puppet master, but also in the blurred lines of who is actually on whose side. When O’Neal hears what happens to other informants, Agent Mitchell (played with manipulative zeal by Jesse Plemons) uses this as an opportunity to explain to Bill that the Black Panthers are no better than the Ku Klux Klan. O’Neal will eventually have to make the ultimate choice.
Daniel Kayuula’s performance as Fred Hampton is big and physical. He looks to have put on bulk for the role, and his frame takes over every scene he is in. Despite his physicality and gifted oratory skills, Kayuula plays Hampton as sensitive and shy, yet passionate about his cause. He brings his knowing eyes from his performance in Get Out. There is a slightly understandable presumption that, given its title, Judas and the Black Messiah might veer in hagiography. However, it is important to note that it is Sheen as Hoover that labels Hampton ‘the Black Messiah’, or at least a potential one. Hoover, a symbol of the fear permeating through not only the FBI, by many other mainstream organisations in the United States at the time.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an interesting window into this period of American history. However, the film itself can sometimes fall into genre cliches, saved by the actors involved. Dominique Fishback, a real up-and-coming talent, plays Hampton’s love interest, and is given very little to do. O’Neal and Hampton’s relationship is never wholly explored. This might have been an interesting avenue for exploration if the film was less interested in hitting traditional narrative beats.