Judas and the Black Messiah: Film Review

Judas and the Black Messiah

Daniel Kaluuya recently won the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards for his role as Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, and now I’ve seen the performance, I can fully appreciate why.

Shaka King‘s movie is not a biopic about Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, but a snapshot of the latter years of his life in the ’60s, and how Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty criminal at risk of going to jail, was recruited by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to work as their informant and infiltrate the Panthers to help them take down Hampton, an operation which resulted in the assassination of the activist.

I wish this film had been a proper biopic about Hampton because I felt this narrative device never gave us a real insight into who he was as a person. We just see him through O’Neal’s eyes and he never got super close – Hampton never fully trusted him and let him into his proper inner circle – so we never get to know him in any real, intimate way. I also came away with no detailed understanding of his legacy and what he achieved during his short life and as chairman. In this film, Hampton is mostly seen given rousing preacher-style speeches to large crowds and while they are fascinating to watch, I wanted more scenes where that public persona is stripped away and Hampton is just Hampton. We get some moments depicting his relationship with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) but these are underdeveloped.

I think Kaluuya is an incredible actor and he delivers a barnstorming performance as the chairman but he’s 31 – 10 years older than Hampton was when he died. His death scene and how it was portrayed was shocking, but I think it would have been even more impactful and emotionally devastating if the actor was closer to the correct age. This is the same for Stanfield too. O’Neal and Hampton were so young when this all happened and I only found that out when I did research afterwards. Not casting actors of the right age means the audience doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation.

Like Kaluuya, Stanfield gives a strong performance too. He’s our window into the world of the Black Panthers and he brings such humanity, regret, and vulnerability to a part that could have easily been a straightforward villain character. He doesn’t want to help the FBI but they have him over a barrel and he has no choice but to betray Hampton. Footage of the real O’Neal speaking about his actions in a documentary is played before the credits and it was fascinating. I also want to praise Fishback for injecting as much heart and soul into Johnson as the screenplay allowed – the final shot of her in this movie is haunting – and Plemons for being so good at being bad.

Judas and the Black Messiah tells a powerful and shocking story that still resonates today, but I thought it focused too much on the historical events and hitting the beats of what happened next to let us get to know the characters, who really needed more depth. I also found the pace a little slow and struggled to connect with the story. Despite all this, I recommend giving it watch simply because it tells a story everybody should be aware of.

Available to rent at home on premium video-on-demand platforms from Thursday 11th March

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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