The Betrayal of the Black Messiah

Simultaneously a historical biopic and a film very much of the moment, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the most important films of the year. Bursting with intensity and conviction, the film lays bare the war that U.S law enforcement has waged for years against Black Americans. Providing vital historical context for the ongoing fight for racial equality, King examines a legacy of injustice in a bold, inventive and politically-engaged film.

In 1968, we are introduced to William “Bill’ O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the ‘Judas’ of the film’s title, who — in exchange for having his own felony charges dropped — agreed to infiltrate the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers as an FBI informant. His target was Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national BPP. O’Neal’s betrayal culminated in a frenzied raid of Hampton’s apartment by FBI agents and police officers on 4 December 1969, 20 months after the last ‘Black Messiah’, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

Shaka King balances the film’s narrative with brilliant visual storytelling; cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Kristan Sprague expertly capture the murky, wintry streets of Chicago and are unwavering in their depiction of more harrowing violent scenes. A subplot features a sequence in which a gentle character ultimately breaks down and engages in a shoot-out with cops; unflinching and devastating, it is a particularly powerful moment.

The film is carried by some of the year’s best performances: Dominique Fishback is heart-breaking as Hampton’s partner, Deborah Johnson, and Jesse Plemons is suitably cold and coercive as FBI agent Roy Mitchell. But the film belongs to Kaluuya and Stanfield, who are outstanding as Hampton and O’Neal respectively. Kaluuya’s Academy and BAFTA award-winning performance captures a man who was both provocative and inspiring in public yet surprisingly reticent in private, embodying a revolutionary figurehead who was a gifted and remarkable communicator. Stanfield, too, articulates O’Neal’s contradictions; his admiration and affection for Hampton is clear but frequently at odds with his adulation and misplaced respect of the FBI.

Judas and the Black Messiah is screening as part of the Showroom’s opening programme alongside Minari, Sound of Metal, Ammonite and Best Picture winner Nomadland; this slate of films shares a common concern: that of human experience and identity, and are stories which should be seen, heard and felt in the communal space of our local cinema screens.

Judas and the Black Messiah is showing from Monday 17 May, tickets are on sale now.

This article first featured in the Sheffield Telegraph on Thursday 13 May 2021.


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