Judas and the Black Messiah
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
Set in 1969, this fascinating and beautifully played but narratively saggy thriller recounts the American authorities’ relentless attempts to stop Chicago radical and Black Panther Fred Hampton.
Stanfield is William O’Neal, a seventeen-year-old petty criminal, who is apprehended trying to steal a car while posing as a federal officer. His FBI Agent handler Roy Mitchell (Plemons) offers to have O’Neal’s charges dropped if he goes undercover for them at the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, focusing on its charismatic leader Fred Hampton (Kaluuya). ‘The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same’, the seemingly mild-mannered Mitchell tells O'Neal, reminding us that water-muddying conflations between left and right are nothing new.
Gradually O’Neal begins rising through the ranks to become a security officer, while forming a friendship with Hampton. After Hampton is imprisoned on trumped-up charges then briefly released on appeal, the FBI, under the instruction of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen under distracting prosthetics) insists he is ‘neutralized’. A conflicted O’Neal tries to quit his informant role but is prevented by his FBI paymasters.
The noirish thriller elements, while providing some reals tense moments, feel a little generic, meaning that the picture works better as a timely and genuinely illuminating historical document with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s grainy photography effectively capturing the fraught and feverish atmosphere of late 60s Chicago. Despite their vilification as mere insurrectionists and incendiary speeches, the Panthers organised various community outreach schemes, including free breakfasts for school children. The charismatic, articulate twenty-year-old Hampton also founded the authorities-troubling multiracial ‘Rainbow Coalition’, a collective of radial socialists, students and rival gangs, to take action against poverty, corruption and police brutality. In one of the film’s best sequences, Hampton, played with persuasive conviction by Kaluuya, charms a Confederate flag-sporting white group into joining him.
Judas and the Black Messiah is available to stream on 26th February
Follow David on @DWill_Crackfilm