Out today in the UK…It would scarcely have seemed credible at the time, but politics have changed far beyond what would have been imaginable in the late 60’s. Once vilified by white-controlled media, The Black Panthers are now non-disposable heroes in a revisionist universe; one of the strengths of Shaka King’s earnest historical drama is that it reaches back to depict a world where that struggle was anything but child-friendly. The other obvious strength is Daniel Kaluuya, a revelation in Get Out, and cementing that reputation here with an utterly magnetic performance as Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, the ‘black messiah’ of the title.
We’ve already seen Hampton as a featured character in The Trial of the Chicago 7, but he’s got a far larger role here. As the title also suggests, this is a story of betrayal, and the Judas comes in the form of Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a small-time crook who turns FBI informant when he becomes part of Hampton’s inner circle. A vivid opening sees how O’Neal pretends to be an FBI agent as part of his hustle; he walks into a dive bar in hat and suit, and is back out with a set of stolen car keys before the locals have figured him out. A vivid fight with a knife-blade cutting through the car’s soft-top sets the tone here; sure, there’s lots of speeches, but there’s an underlying current of violence that’s always just below the surface, and O’Neal recognises that he’s likely to be the conduit.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an epic story, a kind of reverse image of Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman, and depicting a character who is always on the verge of being discovered and punished for transgression; the result is a nervy watch, but that’s right for the story. Jesse Plemons is a great support as agent Roy Mitchell, who attempts to handle O’Neal, but his orders some from the top, and when the top is Martin Sheen as an unhinged J Edgar Hoover, then it’s no surprise that things don’t end well.
Heading straight to steaming from Warners, Judas and the Black Messiah may turn some off via its idolising of Hampton, although it’s hard to argue when Kaluuya is on this magnetic form. But it’s also an educated, historically aware period piece, which has elements of Spike Lee and Michael Mann, but also a style of its own. Ryan Coogler produces, and makes a real statement with this gleaming, biting story of idealism and betrayal that really should have been seen on cinema screens, and hopefully still will be if the current pandemic ever receeds.
Judas and the Black Messiah is out now in the UK. Links below for trailer and film, plus some light relief in the form of Key and Peele’s welcome take on the idea of new Black Panthers.
Thanks to Warner Brothers UK for advance screener access to this title.