My Take – Joining the list of recent set of Black characters led excellent ensemble dramas is this latest Warner Bros.’ simultaneous theatrical/HBO Max release, which following its premiere at the virtual Sundance Film Festival 2021 has become quite the deserving awards season front runner. Backed by Ryan Coogler, helmed by Shaka King and co-written with Will Berson, this historical drama once again shines a light on the US Civil Rights Movement, in similar veins to last year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, from the exploitation of Black American culture to white supremacy in law enforcement, which tragically still resonates till date.
However, here, the focus is solely on the final days of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, a twenty one year old charismatic firebrand who was hounded by the FBI for his activism. And like most inspiring stories centered on Black revolutionaries, this one too ends on a tragic note, resulting in a smart, powerful and potent drama.
Styled on the lines of gritty crime thrillers of the ’70s and ’80s, here, director King’s dual focus and stylish cinematic approach is rousing and maddening as forces of revolution and oppression collide and entangle, giving enough cause for this vividly acted drama to be on everyone’s watch list.
Set in 1968, the story follows Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty car thief, who is busted for his ruse of carrying a fake FBI badge to confiscate vehicles for himself. Now facing a lengthy prison term, O’Neal is provided a chance to walk free provided he turns into an informer directly reporting to Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), an FBI Agent.
His job is to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who the FBI classified as the greatest threat to internal security of the country, rise up the ranks, and provide information especially related to the Chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a forceful, magnetic orator who, through toil and charisma, is building a rainbow coalition of the oppressed in Chicago, pointing them towards social justice, specifically, against the increasingly brutal, racist police force.
Narrative wise, director King takes a novel approach to the material, concentrating less on the relationship between the two title characters, by plunging into the dark chapter in American history when J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) used FBI surveillance, infiltration and worse to check the ascent of Black movements both peaceful and more militant. In addition to its being beautifully shot and carefully directed, it presents an arresting situation.
The film relies on juxtapositions of O’Neal’s time among the Panthers and sit-downs with Mitchell. The FBI agent believes he’s on the side of justice, and often compares the Black Panthers to white supremacists. Here, director King cleverly frames events predominantly from O’Neal’s perspective, as we glimpse an increasingly desperate and trapped individual as he is pushed to the brink. There’s a certain tragedy and surprising sympathy to his arc, as you question whether he could have amounted to so much more under different circumstances.
It is through his eyes we also see intimate portrayal of Hampton’s life and work that pairs his fiery speeches. Who for all his talk of taking up arms in the fight for racial justice, Hampton’s actions are more focused on community building: free breakfasts, medical clinics, bringing together the Panthers with racially diverse groups to speak out against police brutality. With sharp period detail and music, director King’s film paints as broad a picture as it can, illustrating how a revolution can (and must) be carried out. It’s not particularly glamorous work and, yes, it is brutal at times, but the film inspires nonetheless. Especially if you’ve never heard of Hampton, murdered at just 21 years old.
The composition of each moment is thoughtful and beautiful with eerie fluorescence and dynamic camerawork adding to the film’s electric atmosphere. The director paints in shadow and allows the imagination to fill in scenes of violence without leaving space for ambiguity. There is breathtaking tension and a sense of devastation that is, at times, almost unbearable. The soundtrack ramps up these moments with a spare, percussive score, heightened by a single strum of a bass or tap on a snare.
The film also features a number of well-choreographed and tense shootouts and action sequences, as director King doesn’t shy away from the violence and brutality of the central clash. One key standout sequence features a gripping and explosive shootout at the Black Panther HQ, which left me on the edge of my seat.
Sure, some of the story beats can feel a little rote as a result, and many of the real-life Black Panthers we meet like Mark Clark (Jermaine Fowler), who died alongside Hampton in the 1969 raid, flash by too quickly to make an impression. And things do slow down for a bit of romance between Hampton and another Panther, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Despite the inclusion of one of the most moving scenes of the film where Johnson reads Hampton a poem she’s written, expressing both fear and acceptance of the fact that their life of protest will almost certainly end in tragedy.
But the film’s faults don’t detract from its relevance, in light of the modern dilemmas, which sadly are the same as decades ago.
A major contributing factor to that are the performances, especially the one from Daniel Kaluuya, who is so commanding that it loses some heat when he’s not around. An actor of innate magnetism, Kaluuya seems to have fully disappears into Hampton. His cadence and speech patterns, especially in his public speaking, are a blend of preaching, proselytizing and poetry, his vocal rhythms swinging from rat-a-tat to rock steady. This role is a huge step up for him in a quick march towards becoming one of the finest actors of his generation.
And while Kaluuya gives the film its strength, Lakeith Stanfield supplies its unease. The gifted actor provides yet another compelling performance, poised between empathy and judgment for the pitiable O’Neal. As damning as the film’s title is, Stanfield‘s O’Neal is never quite aware of the seriousness of the game he’s playing until its gruesome and appalling end.
In supporting roles, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Martin Sheen, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Algee Smith, Jermaine Fowler and Lil Rel Howery, are also very good. On the whole, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is a solid historical drama that is tremendously impactful and features some outstanding and electric performances.
Directed – Shaka King
Rated – R
Run Time – 126 minutes