Premiering at the virtual Sundance Film Festival 2021, the latest thrilling historical biopic to hit our screens once again shines a light on the US Civil Rights Movement, documenting the ongoing clash between the FBI and the Black Panther Party (BPP). Following in a similar vein to The Trial of the Chicago Seven and Mangrove, Judas and the Black Messiah is a bold and powerful critique of institutional corruption and racism in law enforcement which still tragically resonates today.
Directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black King centres on the rise (and untimely fall) of revolutionary activist and chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). In 1968, the FBI classified the Black Panther party “as without question…the greatest threat to internal security of the country”, seeking to disrupt their organisation from within. Establishing a counterintelligence operative, the organisation planted an informant, petty criminal William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), into the party with the instruction to rise up the ranks and get closer to their leader.
Opening with archive footage of the riots in Chicago and the assassination of Martin Luther King, along with historical talking head interviews, King pulls no punches immersing you into the era with hard hitting context. Swiftly documenting O’Neal’s botched attempts at a car robbery and subsequent offer from federal agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who promises to expunge his lengthy prison sentence if he gets close to rising activist Fred Hampton. The first act documents the frantic O’Neal as he seeks to con his way into the speaker’s inner circle while maintaining tense contact with Mitchell, à la The Departed.
As the scope of the BP’s operations increase, establishing breakfast clubs for needy children and uniting rival cross-racial gangs, so does the concern and subsequent onslaught of harassment by the FBI and local police force. The violence and bloodshed intensifies, with the third act proving intensely hard hitting and similar in urgency and conviction to Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. However beneath the violence there’s a warmth and vitality to certain scenes, with King giving a voice to the victims affected by the actions of the FBI.
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield must be serious Oscar contenders with both giving career best performances. Like Leslie Odom Jr’s fascinating insight into Hamilton’s villainous Aaron Burr, Stanfield brings a complex and layered performance to the Judas-esque character. King cleverly frames events predominantly from his perspective, as we glimpse an increasingly desperate and trapped individual as he’s pushed to the brink. There’s a certain tragedy and surprising sympathy to his arc, as you question whether he could have amounted to so much more under different circumstances.
Kaluuya is utterly captivating as the charismatic and inspiring leader, particularly excelling in the rousing speeches reminiscent of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. He brings a huge amount of emotion in the electric monologues, with a considerable power in the conviction of his words. His chemistry with Dominique Fishback proves the heart and soul of the film, with a touching and sensitive romance. Jesse Plemons also proves a fascinating part of the hugely talented ensemble, bringing a righteousness and terrifying intensity to the role.
The production from Sam Lisenco, paired with the Charlese Antoinette Jones’s costumes and Craig Harris and Mark Isham’s score, gives a hugely authentic look and feel to the world. The jazz music, stylish cars, neon lights and fedora and beret hats fully immerse you in the era, also offering a sharp juxtaposition to Sean Bobbitt’s more muted tones, which highlights the inequality between neighbourhoods. The film also features a number of well choreographed and tense shootouts and action sequences, as King doesn’t shy away from the violence and brutality of the central clash. One key standout sequence features a gripping and explosive shootout at the Black Panther HQ, which left me on the edge of my seat.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a hugely powerful and urgent historical thriller featuring outstanding and electric performances from both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. The events that occur in this film will long stay with you once the credits start rolling, particularly as they feel so shockingly timely and relevant. Like Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, this should be essential viewing.