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Judas and the Black Messiah review: Shaka King’s portrait of Fred Hampton makes the radical accessible

The film has a kind of tonal familiarity and instant mainstream appeal, transforming it into an act of canonisation

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 12 March 2021 06:31 GMT
Judas and the Black Messiah - Official Trailer

Dir: Shaka King. Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery. 15 cert, 126 mins

There was never any hope that Judas and the Black Messiah – distributed by Warner Bros and prepped for awards glory – would accurately capture the anti-capitalist, Marxist-Leninist stance of its subject, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Radical politics and the Hollywood machine never make good bedfellows. The McCarthy-era blacklists made sure of that. Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, had worked to unite disparate, marginalised groups under a single “Rainbow Coalition”. It was a force for wider social change cut short by Hampton’s assassination in December 1969, as ordered by the FBI and with the aid of undercover informant William O’Neal.

But Judas and the Black Messiah possesses its own kind of cultural power. Its director, Shaka King, has created a work that is slickly and efficiently directed, evocative of both classic biopics and Seventies crime thrillers. That lends it a kind of tonal familiarity and instant mainstream appeal – in turn, Judas and the Black Messiah becomes an act of canonisation. It defines Hampton’s assassination, as well as his wider legacy, as an urgent and defining moment in American history. And by depicting the Black Panthers’ work in community and educational outreach, such as Hampton’s overseeing of the free breakfast programme, it pushes their political agenda into the centre of conversation – even if it arrives in a slightly neutered form. King has made the radical accessible.

That has much to do with how Hampton is depicted here, as played by Daniel Kaluuya – humanised but still with a touch of mystique. In public, his voice is so symphonic, his words so arresting (“political power flows through the barrel of a gun,” he tells a crowd), that it’s impossible to imagine that this man and all his ideas could be contained in a single room. Kaluuya has transformed himself – an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor can’t be far behind – but only with small, significant touches. He’s bulked up and shifted his posture. His Hampton is strong, but a little retiring, like a man who doesn’t have the impulse to seek power and influence, but still shoulders it gracefully.

Kaluuya also, crucially, lets Hampton be a little more shy and sentimental behind closed doors, when he’s consoling a grieving mother or spending time with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson, later known as Akua Njeri (Dominique Fishback, whose compassion is radiant). But King puts limits on how far we get to know Hampton, so that we remain as enthralled by him as the crowds he commanded. We’re often watching him through the perspective of O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the man who would ultimately betray him – the Judas to his “Black Messiah”, as J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, whose prosthetics make him look like The Penguin) would call those he deemed a threat to white supremacy.

Dominique Fishback’s compassion as Deborah Johnson is radiant (Warner Bros)

O’Neal is a car thief faced with an ultimatum: serve time in jail or agree to become an FBI informant, infiltrating Hampton’s chapter and gaining his trust. But his political apathy starts to wane after he’s exposed to the violent suppression inflicted on the Panthers. King doesn’t hold back in depicting an America at war with its own people – Mark Isham and Craig Harris’s thundering percussion sounds like the march of army boots and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt lenses a police shoot-out with a harsh, brutal formality.

Stanfield is enthralling, his eyes a formidable tool – great whirlpools that capture his character’s soul – which he couples with twitchy limbs and a delirious laugh. Was O’Neal converted to the cause? Could he swallow up the guilt and move on with his life? The answer lies in Stanfield’s expressions and a single, devastating line in the film’s closing titles. Judas and the Black Messiah may not capture the full breadth of Hampton’s politics, but it places their defining feature – the power of the collective – at its very centre. O’Neal played into the capitalist, white supremacist system, profited, but was left corrupted. Hampton may have met the cruellest of fates, but his words would prove true: “You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution.”

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