Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

There are all too many commentators in this increasingly fractious and dichotomic world that insist on labelling every issue as one that is Black and White. Literally. But the reality is, no matter is ever that simple, and one only needs to look back at historical events to learn that events, and people, are never that easy to define.

America’s Civil Rights Movement is still reeling from the assassinations of its two most influential figures: Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. A number of fringe organisations have sought to uphold and continue the Movement, among them the militant Black Panther Party, whose image and ideals have attracted concern across the United States. So concerning are its actions that the Federal Bureau of Investigations has deemed the Party a terrorist organisation, and sought to quell their influence by any means necessary.

One of the FBI’s employees, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) believes that infiltrating the Panthers will ensure the movement is suppressed, and has found a reluctant participant in petty thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) – having recently been arrested for impersonating a federal agent, O’Neal is promised that he will not face any charges if he assists the FBI as an informant. Under Mitchell’s authority, O’Neal is tasked with earning the trust of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Party’s Chicago chapter, in order to elicit relevant intel.

Judas and the Black Messiah is the latest in a succession of Civil Rights films that have been released over the past few months, proceeding features such as Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Of the two, it is Lee’s work that Judas most closely emulates, with the story being an allegory for the continuous struggles faced by African-Americans, and the utilisation of two more the director’s motifs – archival footage and non-linear editing – to deliver exposition. Sadly though, that’s where the comparisons end, for Shaka King’s directorial style is otherwise indistinctive from his peers.

While his creativity may be lacking, King’s direction is remarkably solid, and this is particularly evident during the film’s more violent sequences. Police raids and shootouts are sporadically placed throughout Judas, each one more brutal than the last and all portrayed with frightening realism – the shock and fear of the characters involved is all too palpable. The photography aids in fuelling the tension, with dim lighting and tight framing providing a sense of claustrophobia, ensuring the anxieties of the protagonists are felt by the viewer. Without doubt, these scenes of violence are the most powerful moments of Judas.

Jesse Plemons as FBI agent Roy Mitchell in Judas and the Black Messiah

Also compelling are the three lead characters, all of whom are adroitly written and superbly portrayed. Fred Hampton is heralded as the picture’s true hero, despite the negative connotations that surround him and the Black Panther movement; the confrontational lectures he delivers contrast heavily with the more humble, saintlike persona he displays privately, and Daniel Kaluuya does well at conveying Hampton’s softness in the film’s quieter moments. (Kaluuya, of course, has already earned critical acclaim and accolades for his performance, and seems certain to do so again come the Academy Awards ceremony in a month’s time.)

Co-star LaKeith Stanfield arguably has the more challenging task of playing Bill O’Neal, whose complexity is far greater than Hampton’s. Judas frames O’Neal as an outcast without ambition, his loyalty torn between the only two men who show him warmth and support – one gets the sense that he admires both of his mentors in equal measure. Stanfield does well to convey O’Neal’s underlying apprehension and anxieties, while simultaneously expressing a façade of bravado that borders on frightening. It’s a performance Stanfield delivers without fault, and just the latest example of his exceptional talent.

Although he’s credited as a secondary player to the actors above, Jesse Plemons is more or less the third lead of Judas, being a constant and welcome presence. His character of Roy Mitchell is primed to be the antagonist, yet as the film progresses, he is shown to possess a fair degree of nuance, questioning the actions of his superiors and reflecting his own judgement. What’s more impressive is how Plemons projects the congenial FBI agent as an intimidating, Machiavellian figure without needing to yell, nor scowl, nor even produce so much as a smirk.

Blessed with a formidable cast, sharp writing and some rather intense sequences, Judas and the Black Messiah is an exceptional and engaging biographical feature. While it lacks a unique voice and could use more verve on occasion, overall the steady hand of Shaka King ensures the film’s weightiest moments still leave an impact.

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