Handpicked by a plotting power, a young man is paid to inform on a charismatic leader who is calling for revolution and radical change in the world they know.
As fear of his growing influence rises, the traitor is compelled by money to hand the so-called “messiah” over to the authorities to be killed.
Though it sounds like the events of the Passion from 2000 years ago, this narrative actually unfolded in 1969 with the alleged assassination of activist Fred Hampton by the FBI in Chicago, Illinois, and is powerfully retold in the historical drama Judas and the Black Messiah, which is currently playing in cinemas across Australia.
Directed by Shaka King and co-written by Will Berson, Judas and the Black Messiah focuses on the last years in the life of Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), the chairman of the Black Panthers’ Party’s Illinois chapter.
After Chicago car thief Bill O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) gets caught for impersonating a Federal Officer, he is given a second chance when the FBI recruits him to infiltrate the Black Panthers and inform on Hampton’s operations.
“Kaluuya is at his acting best when displaying Hampton’s exceptional ability to use rhetoric to incite revolution and propaganda to provoke the people.”
Ultimately, Hampton’s growing support causes the fanatically racist FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen) to call for his assassination by Chicago Police on December 4, 1969.
Reuniting after Jordan Peele’s award-winning horror smash hit Get Out, Kaluuya and Stanfield give standout performances that capture the audience’s attention when sharing the screen.
Kaluuya is at his acting best when displaying Hampton’s exceptional ability to use rhetoric to incite revolution and propaganda to provoke the people.
That ability is evident not only through the power of his words and its engaging delivery, but in the way Kaluuya holds himself.
As the carjacker-turned-FBI informant, Stanfield does his best to showcase the emotion and conflict behind O’Neal’s decision to turn on his people, particularly in those scenes where he is forced to face his actions.
Unfortunately, the lack of character development, in both script and performance, hinders the audience’s engagement when Stanfield is on his own.
The downside to such powerful performances is that the audience becomes disinterested in the scenes that follow if they do not engage or push the story forward. This was evident mostly in scenes with Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover, in which he would lecture his agents on Hampton’s situation in the FBI briefing room. These moments did nothing but break the momentum.
“In depicting the struggle of Black Americans in the time following Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, the film does well to highlight the corruption of those in powerful positions, whether white or black, and the problems that arise when one seeks it out for their own agenda.”
With that said, Sean Bobbitt’s exceptional cinematography, which really captures the atmosphere of that era, does much to make such stale scenes engaging.
In the end, Judas and the Black Messiah is a film about power.
In depicting the struggle of Black Americans in the time following Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, the film does well to highlight the corruption of those in powerful positions, whether white or black, and the problems that arise when one seeks it out for their own agenda.
Even though the story would not do justice to history if it did not focus on the socialist ideology of the Black Panthers and their followers, the film tends to romanticise these ideals at times, which for some could be dangerous.