A Meaningful Biopic with Powerful Performances

by Hassan Ilahi

Racism has always been pervasive in American history. Arguably, there isn’t a time when America was as fraught with racial tensions as the Black Panther Movement of the 1960’s. During this turbulent period, social activist Fred Hampton advocated justice for black individuals. With his passionate political perspective, inspirational monologues and fighting spirit, Hampton encouraged black individuals to confront racial injustice. However, Hampton’s career came to a tragic closure when he was assassinated by the FBI at the tender age of 21. Hampton’s death remains a grim reminder of the racism that exists in America today. How did an African-American hero become a threat to U.S. security?

This is intriguing question posed by Shaka King’s latest film Judas and the Black Messiah. An informative, gut-wrenching and timely historical biopic, it offers an eye-opening look at the legacy of a little-known activist in American history. With his second feature, writer/director Shaka King has crafted an authentic account of the FBI’s investigation into the Black Panther Party. Packed with exquisite production values, engrossing storytelling and powerful performances, it is one of the best movies of the year. Although Judas and the Black Messiah is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It suffers from an uneven pace that tests the viewer’s patience. Nonetheless, it offers taut entertainment that will satisfy fans of historical dramas.

Based on real events, Judas and the Black Messiah tells the true story of the FBI’s investigation into the Black Panther Party. LaKeith Stanfield stars in the title role as William O’Neal, a petty criminal with a record of delinquency. When he is recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, O’Neal is offered an alternative to serving prison-time. Using his skills as a deceitful undercover agent, O’Neal conspires to assassinate party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). As O’Neal befriends Hampton, he questions where his loyalties lie.

Writer/director Shaka King has always been fascinated with themes of racial oppression. His 2017 acclaimed short film LaZercism offered a satirical look at the racism that perpetuates modern-day America. Judas and the Black Messiah, however, marks King’s first docudrama and foray into a forgotten era in U.S. history. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to dramatize the FBI’s corrupt investigation into the Black Panther Party, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using spellbinding cinematography, King draws viewers into the world of an undercover agent on a top-secret mission in 1960’s Chicago. King’s decision to incorporate archive news footage into the movie is risky, but it works immensely. Working alongside cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, King successfully employs archive footage to render parallels between the 1960’s and present-day U.S. King excels at recreating racial conflict of the 1960’s, and his latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If themes of racial conflict do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Judas and the Black Messiah. King proves to be a genius at using costumes to showcase the façades of characters. Assisted by costume-designer Charlese Antoinette Jones, King effectively utilizes costumes to demonstrate the various façades of characters. For example, O’Neal’s various outfits display his fake aliases throughout the film from an FBI imposter to a Black Panther Party member. Through these breathtaking costumes, King creates a sense of mystery around the true identity of the character. Moreover, the musical score is also worth praising. Mark Isham & Craig Harris’ R&B score is highly memorable. It gives the movie a tense and nerve-wracking atmosphere reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Through dazzling production values, King keeps viewers engrossed in the hardships of African-American activists in 1960s Chicago.

Another laudable aspect of Judas and the Black Messiah is the script. King’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to create compelling depictions of historical activists through framing devices. When recounting real-life stories of historical figures, screenwriters tend to depict them as saintlike heroes with little regard for objectivity. This often leaves no room for critical interpretations and leads towards misconceptions of history. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with Judas and the Black Messiah. King sensibly avoids portraying Fred Hampton as a heroic figure without weaknesses. Instead, he tells the story from the tainted perspective of Fred Hampton’s traitor William O’Neal. Through the perspective of O’Neal, Hampton is viewed both as a revolutionary hero and threat to the FBI. Using this innovative narrative technique, King creates a multifaceted portrait of a historical figure. Framing devices are tricky techniques to use successfully in historical dramas. However, they work tremendously in this movie. Using an unconventional script, King keeps viewers invested in a segregated world.

It is hard to not praise the phenomenal performances from the cast. In an exceptional African-American ensemble, every star shines.

Daniel Kaluuya delivers his finest performance to date as Fred Hampton. Following his breakout role in 2017’s Get Out, Kaluuya has proven to be an extraordinary actor with an aptitude for playing victims of racism. With Judas and the Black Messiah, however, he takes on his most challenging role to date. It is not easy to portray a celebrated black activist that advocated social change in 1960’s Chicago. However, Kaluuya pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he embodies the charisma, intensity and unwavering commitment of the revolutionary Black Panther activist. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance from one of the finest black actors.

LaKeith Stanfield is sensational in the role of a conflicted undercover agent that infiltrates the Black Panther Party. While Kaluuya gets the showier role, Stanfield is equally excellent and deserving of awards recognition. As William O’Neal, he showcases flair for imbuing humanity into villainous traitors through minimal dialogue. Whether he is expressing guilt for betraying his community or anxiety at the prospect of exposing his identity, Stanfield effectively captures his character’s internal conflict through meaningful expressions. Its an empathetic performance that honors the humanity of its real-life figure.

Despite its powerful performances, however, its unfortunate that Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t entirely live up to its messianic ambitions. If there’s a minor misstep by the movie, it suffers from an uneven pace. King’s decision to tell the story from the point-of-view of a traitor is bold and innovative. However, it doesn’t entirely work. Due to this approach, the sequences in which O’Neal reports to the FBI aren’t always as engrossing as his experiences in the Black Panther Party. Furthermore, the movie’s themes may not please everyone. The film tackles controversial topics such as police brutality, government corruption and institutional racism that may disturb certain viewers. Given its harrowing subject, Judas and the Black Messiah may not satisfy mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of historical dramas will definitely enjoy Judas and the Black Messiah and so will movie-goers seeking enlightening entertainment. An impassioned outcry against injustice, it celebrates the legacies of legendary icons in U.S. history. Nearly 50 years after Fred Hampton’s death, it’s sad to be reminded that nothing has changed in a country that seems condemned to repeat its past today.

Hassan’s Grade:  A-