Compensating in visual simplicity and narrative earnestness what it lacks in storytelling flair, Shaka King‘s Judas And The Black Messiah (2021) is a fascinating watch, regardless of its cinematic flaws, as it follows the trajectories of two men whose fateful interaction brought upon the downfall of both – albeit in very different ways. And in distinctively different timeframes.
What I credit this timely, meticulously researched endeavour with most, is its bringing into focus the burning question of the ways credible popular movements could be corrupted from within, external elements slowly introducing wrongful practices, sapping them of their righteous energy and heartfelt zeal – finally destroying the very voices which made them what they are.
In this case, it is the Black Panther Party, the time is the late sixties, the place is Chicago, and the voice in question – Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the young chairman of the party’s Illinois chapter. A man not only of conviction, but of impeccable ethics, a genius orator and strategist who understood both the power that lies in uniting the people against an overwhelmingly stronger oppressor, as well as the importance of broader community support, in that ever-fraught cross-section between racial politics, local activism, gender equality, and social justice.
It took a William O’Neal, an FBI informant, and a petty thief, looking for a way out of jail time, infiltrating the movement, to bring down a Fred Hampton – a true revolutionary in his prime. Thus re-directing an entire tidal wave of change.
Hampton was educated, respectful, egalitarian, honouring his sisters, as much as his brothers in arms. Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) was none of these things, but secretly admired Fred, in that strange, perverted way of someone already condemned to eternal damnation in awe of true dignity – yet equally ready to destroy it to survive.
Becoming part of the movement – helping to build it and, at the same time, undermining its very foundations, Bill, the Judas, to Fred’s Messiah – as well as other provocateurs and embedded state agents, unfortunately did their jobs well, causing an inner distortion in many popular movements of the 1960s – with incalculable ripple effects to their core causes.
Stronger in its elements than in its final presentation, with incredible performances by Stanfield and Kaluuya, along with Dominique Fishback, as Hampton’s wife, and Jesse Plemons as O’Neal’s FBI handler, Judas And The Black Messiah lacks cinematic originality perhaps because the director himself was too careful not harm the story by stylistic interventions, easing its path to cinema screens, but veering off point from the heart of the matter.
With this group of outstanding acting talent assembled, I believe that a bolder directorial and writing approach could have transformed the already strong material at hand into a masterpiece. However, what we do get is a text that is profoundly disquieting in its straightforward arc of the archetypal tragedy of betrayal. Especially, when observed as a piece of political commentary on the present moment in time – its reach extending much further than cinema, which could have been its initial intention. A thought which I find both intriguing and admirable.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov