Review by Lila Funge
“You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.”
Striking. Powerful. Enraging. These are the words that came to mind when the credits for Judas and the Black Messiah began to roll down my screen. Director Shaka King proves he can stand with the greats in this gripping biopic of the late, great Fred Hampton. Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield give career-best performances as the leads; assassinated Black Panther Party deputy Chairman Fred Hampton and FBI informant William “Bill” O’Neal respectively. With brilliant supporting acts from Jesse Plemons as FBI agent Roy Mitchell and Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson, this film elegantly portrays a historical event that, in the hands of the wrong director, could have become nothing more than a muddled mess.
Judas and the Black Messiah takes viewers through the duty and struggle that comes with being a black revolutionary in a country unwilling to accept change. The film opens on O’Neal impersonating an FBI agent in order to steal cars, but when a job goes south, he brokers a deal with Agent Mitchell to collect information on the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in exchange for his freedom. Unknowingly, Hampton welcomes him into his close circle, and before long the FBI is in on every move the party makes. Shaka King allows viewers to follow the inner turmoil O’Neal is battling directly paralleled with the battle for freedom Hampton fights until the film’s gut-wrenching conclusion.
This may not be the description most would think of when it comes to heavy and important pieces, however, I would characterise this film as refreshing. Never before had I seen a group as demonised by society as the BPP so beautifully humanised on screen. Even Spike Lee’s masterpiece BlacKkKlansman failed to portray the party members as much more than what we’ve seen before – somewhat underdeveloped characters with stagnant dialogue. King takes this group and breathes life into them for Kaluuya, Stanfield, and Fishback to spit out into their riveting speeches and heartbreaking monologues. Although the script feels unoriginal in places – particularly in the more cliché biopic scenes – the dialogue itself feels natural and free-flowing. Reminiscent of classic 70s crime thrillers and noirs, the cinematography and set design feed into the story seamlessly. Accompanied by an incredible score and brilliant editing, I have no doubt this film is on track to sweep awards season.