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Judas and the Black Messiah: A Challenging Tale of Betrayal

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Screening provided by distributor

By Arnel Duracak

“From Hampton’s rousing speeches of activism and unity, to the mingling between various other party’s in the Illinois region, the film thrives when it is resting on the fine line of tension and calmness”

In its runtime of just over two hours, director Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is currently the year’s most turbulent cinematic experience. It is a political drama that revolves around betrayal, and also highlights the struggle against social injustice, oppression and police brutality that black communities both in America, and the world, continue to face.

The film is based on a true story as it follows FBI informant, William O’Neal’s (LaKeith Stanfield), infiltration of the Illinois Black Panther Party and its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neal is tasked with gathering intel on the Party’s operations in exchange for his own freedom, and is guided by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). The informant premise is a rather familiar one and has been tackled recently by the likes of Spike Lee in BlacKkKlansman (2018), however the story lends itself to the in-and-out structure of informant films and allows for an interesting insight into the Black Panther Party and Hampton.

In turn, it is through the Hampton character and the bubbling sense of urgency within the Black Panther Party, that the film is at its brilliant best. From Hampton’s rousing speeches of activism and unity, to the mingling between various other party’s in the Illinois region, the film thrives when it is resting on the fine line of tension and calmness. Moments that are characterised by their uncertainty in what is to follow serve to perpetuate the strenuousness of being a revolutionary. For instance, intensity during scenes where Hampton is trying to recruit various other organisations to his cause reinforces his willingness to put himself in uncertain situations for the sake of change. There is also a heated sequence where police or “the pigs” as Hampton puts it, clash at the Black Panther headquarters which is one of the few moments where the film excels at emphasising the ‘Us vs Them’ dynamic at play.

Judas and the Black Messiah Reviews - Metacritic

LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah

Unsurprisingly, William O’Neal is at the centre of most of these events as he struggles to manage his relationship with the FBI and his growing revolutionary impulses due to his growing connection to Hampton and the Party. Subsequently, O’Neal’s involvement with the Party is what allows most of those aforementioned sequences to transpire. That said, the film is at its weakest when O’Neal isn’t with the Party, as the cookie-cutter interactions between him and the FBI are often repeated conversations that could have benefitted from a greater exploration of O’Neal’s handling of his double life. In this sense, O’Neal does feel like a character who is underwritten, but that is not to say that Stanfield doesn’t provide an intricate performance of him when given the space to do so.

The film would have benefitted from more time spent with the Party as many of the supporting characters play an instrumental role in the Party’s operations, and in the life of Hampton. For instance, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) is at once a vocal force for Hampton as she encourages his revolutionary undertakings, but also an anchor for him as she is able to engage with him on a poetic and emotional level where others cannot. This is most evident during an early scene where Johnson and Hampton both recite the same speech to one another and share an intimate moment. However, she just doesn’t have enough screentime which is a shame considering her grip on Hampton.

King tends to shift between characters and moments quite frequently in this film, which makes me think that an additional 30 or so minutes wouldn’t have been remiss. But when King does home in on the more heartfelt moments of connection between either Hampton and Johnson or other Party members, there is a greater perspective and insight on who these people were. Subsequently, it makes sense not to stick with the same characters for prolonged periods of time as it reinforces the urgency of O’Neal’s informant situation and places extra tension on the short interactions he does have with characters. This at least seems to be the direction that King and fellow screenwriter Will Berson wanted to take as the film is more concerned with the betrayal aspect of the story rather than the Black Panther Party’s motivations and individuals.

Ultimately, the film is a gripping two hours at the cinema with some strong performances by LaKeith Stanfield and the Golden Globes Best Supporting Actor (Motion Picture) winner, Daniel Kaluuya. While the film could have provided a greater emphasis on the Black Panther Party and had more meat in the script for the cast to work with, it is nonetheless a challenging and ever-so relevant film that is bound to be a front-runner for awards during the current awards season.

 

Judas and the Black Messiah opens nationally from the 11th of March 2021

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Arnel Duracak

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March 4th 2021
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