3 out of 5 stars
In the late 1960s, Chicago's streets were perpetually on fire due to the racial battle boiling over between the police and many of the city's neighbourhoods. One organisation that managed to rise from the ashes of this culture war was the Black Panther Party. Among the leaders who came to prominence was the charismatic revolutionist Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who eventually became a target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) was an ambitious agent. He had been looking for an opportunity to infiltrate the Panthers' organisation. When William "Bill" O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) was arrested after attempting to hijack a car while posing as a federal officer, Agent Mitchell saw the thief as his means of accessing Hampton’s inner circle. Instead of charging O’Neal with his crimes, they worked out a deal where he would work to gain the confidence of the Panther’s leader as a means of getting information for the FBI.
Once Bill gets into the good graces of the organisation he sees that they were well armed, but more importantly the Panthers were active in providing many charitable and unifying purposes within the community. From building medical facilities to supporting school programmes, Fred Hampton’s intentions were meant to service his community's people. As he worked to organise the local gangs and groups to form the multiracial Rainbow Coalition, the FBI worked to build a case against him. This led him to eventually being jailed for a petty crime, but this only led to establishing his notoriety in his community. Upon his prison release, the Bureau continued to do their work to see him and his organisation’s demise.
Fred Hampton’s biopic has been in the works for years and this project seems to benefit from the wave of racially charged films in cinemas. As the awareness of the ever-present ugly head of racism rises worldwide, these historical accounts manage to show that there is truly ‘nothing new under the sun.’ Writer/director Shaka King gives life to a legendary figure who had a significant influence in the war on racial equality during his short life. Hampton’s purposes and sacrifice were lifted to the level of martyr. At the same time, the name of Bill O’Neal was painted as a true villainous traitor.
The relatively unknown director benefits from an outstanding cast and a dramatic historical figure to drive his story forward. Kaluuya, Stanfield, Plemons and Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah, were exceptional in their roles and provided the power needed to portray this visceral movement. Each of the characters managed to humanise the Black Panther Party and show how far people are willing to go for the sake of a cause or at least a dynamic person.
This balance was not afforded to the law enforcement of that era in this screenplay. Even though there were exceptional weaknesses within the era's system and there was a need for significant changes to occur, there was no exception for any on-screen officers or agents to be anything else but racist and corrupt. This leaves this film with a hint of imbalance that only shows one side of this battle for equality. Understandably, this would be a nuance of this story, focusing primarily on the Black Panther Party. Still, it seems to be an odd oversight when the sub-text is screaming for equal rights and representation.
Ultimately, it is a well-told historical tale that inhabits multiple narrative layers that show our need to right human history's wrongs. Judas and The Black Messiah gives the world a glimpse into a relatively forgotten aspect of our past that should challenge us to change for the better.
Reel Dialogue: The origins of Judas and the Messiah
The name Judas has become synonymous with the ultimate betrayal. Those who might not be familiar with the history should know that this man had been a friend of Jesus Christ. He served as the treasurer for the band of individuals who followed the actual Messiah for approximately three years. Then he succumbed to the pressure of power and money by betraying his friend with a kiss of recognition. This decision led him to immediately regret his decision by returning the funds he received from the day's religious leaders and led him to take his own life.
Yet, all of this was foretold before the birth of Judas and Jesus. One man did betray his friend, but this act was part of a bigger plan that led to the world's salvation. This bittersweet reality does not change the label afforded Judas, but it does prove that something good can come out of the worst of actions by mankind.
If you are interested in finding out more about this historical connection, go to this link. The story of Judas and the real Messiah will unfold before you.