Like many others, I have been immensely impressed by the respective work of Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield thus far. Having both amassed a notable string of performances before iconically crossing paths in Jordan Peele’s excellent satirical horror Get Out, they have individually flourished in increasingly stronger roles that comprehensively showcase how crazy-talented they are. Black Panther, Widows and Queen & Slim have cemented Kaluuya’s aptitude for a compelling moral divergence in his portrayals (not to mention a heady knack for accents), while Stanfield has articulated vibrant and nervy self-effacement and causticity in the likes of Sorry to Bother You, Uncut Gems and Knives Out. Of all the rising stars that surround us at the moment, the names of these two dudes always imbue me with particularly strong anticipation.
Naturally, I was pretty damn giddy when it was announced that they were due for a second cinematic meeting in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, and I wasn’t disappointed. A passionate and shocking examination of an important yet virtually unknown event in American history, the work of the two principals breathes full life into this necessarily angry tale of a selfless and morally astute crusader who proved too much of a bugbear to the coercive powers-that-be.
Chicago, 1968. Teenage criminal William O’Neal (Stanfield) has just been apprehended for attempting to steal a car whilst impersonating an FBI agent, an act that could see him serving a minimum of 6 ½ years in prison. Approached at the police station by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), William is informed that he will be granted immunity if he agrees to cooperate with a particularly nefarious operation: FBI Director J Edgar Hoover (an extraordinarily vile Martin Sheen with creepy prosthetic augmentation) is irascibly paranoid about the rise of subversive groups who pose a threat to national security (by his thoroughly wacko standards, at least). One individual who has been keeping Mr Hoover up at night, in particular, is Fred Hampton (Kaluuya). The charismatic and visionary leader of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter, Hampton is spearheading a progressive hybrid of the philosophies of Martin Luther King & Malcolm X, preaching a socialist humanitarian manifesto that is underpinned by racial solidarity and the moral necessity of self-defence. Violence is very much a last resort in Hampton’s eyes, but Hoover considers him a threat to the ‘American way of life’ and wants him gone. If O’Neal agrees to infiltrate the chapter and get close to Hampton in order to set him up, he goes free.
O’Neal’s assignment proves successful, ingratiating himself with the chapter and eventually securing a promotion to Chief of Security. With his desire to stay out of prison in a constant battle with his conscience, O’Neal’s increasingly stressful and chaotic tenure as an informant is balanced by an incisive look at Hampton’s goals and accomplishments. At such a young age, the focal Black Messiah possessed an incredibly resolute work ethic and forward-thinking strategy in his mission to improve the common people’s community, implementing the Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program all over Chicago’s West Side and a free healthcare clinic that included testing and blood donations. Hampton also founded the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial socialist revolutionary group that unified many of Chicago’s interest groups and street gangs into one cohesive force against racism and capitalism. As Hampton’s willingness to give his life for his cause is emboldened by the authorities’ constant efforts to grind him down, O’Neal is thrust into further turmoil by the dirty and sinister depths the FBI is prepared to go to ‘neutralise’ his target. Desperate attempts to quit the operation amid tumultuous events build to a haunting conclusion that is guaranteed to sear into the viewer’s brain.
As the credits rolled, I was lumbered with a strong mixture of sadness and anger that attested to the film’s veritable success in executing its story. Kaluuya and Stanfield are on fire here, the former’s oratory ferociousness and coolheaded steadfastness evoking the might of Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. Hampton was only 21 years old at the time of his death and has remained a thoroughly underrated figure in the historical struggle for civil rights, something the picture will hopefully rectify. Kaluuya has a nuanced and persuasive charisma that illuminates Hampton as a champion of humanism and justice, and there are definitely intuitive parallels to be drawn with King, X, Gandhi and even Christ himself. Unlike Jesus, Martin and Mahatma, Hampton was in lockstep with the notion that oppressed peoples have the right to defend themselves against abuse with physical force, an attitude that made him as good as a terrorist in the eyes of the federal government. His efforts to unite the people in incremental steps toward a new dawn are displayed with poignancy and teeth, one of the film’s many strengths being its effervescent portraiture of a committed, beneficent anti-establishment mindset that feels all but lost in our day and age.
Stanfield matches Kaluuya with a complex, pained demonstration of a man whose safety we fear for while simultaneously loathing his self-interest and its destructive ripple effect. O’Neal was only 17 years old when the FBI pressured him to act as an informant against Hampton and the Panthers, and it would be rather unfair to dismiss how terrified and out-of-depth a young tearaway would feel when faced with the prospect of losing a good chunk of his life in custody. Stanfield presents O’Neal’s dichotomous nature with fervor, desperate to stay in Agent Mitchell’s good books and feeling like a wretched sell-out for going ahead with his machinations against Hampton. I feel some measure of empathy for O’Neal but, when all is said and done, he was instrumental in the annihilation of someone who was crafting a bright and unprecedented future for the Black community, and that’s pretty damn hard to forgive. It stands to reason that his conscience never let him forget it, but I’ll leave it to you to see how it plays out if you’re unfamiliar with the story.
Aided by Sean Bobbitt’s rich and dynamic cinematography and a poignantly soulful score courtesy of Mark Isham & Craig Harris, Judas and the Black Messiah is a fiery and moving document of struggle and betrayal where everyone gives it their all and then some. I’ve encountered a few viewers who would have preferred more of a biopic trajectory in Hampton’s favour, but I believe that the film’s account of his importance to Black struggle is thorough, unambiguous and extremely powerful. It’s a sad tale for sure, but it’s not bereft of hope. An immersive, edifying and inspiring slice of what Howard Zinn would call the ‘People’s History’, it’s a wonderfully igneous work that definitely deserves your time.