Directed by: Shaka King
Written by: Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen
Released: March 11, 2021
Grade: B+

Judas and the Black Messiah

When brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas first pitched this idea to director Shaka King, they described it as a real-life version of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.  It’s an apt comparison.  In the late 1960s, the FBI enlisted an African American teenager and used him as a counterintelligence operative to infiltrate a powerful Black Panther group in Chicago.  He remained undetected for years and the information he provided was used by heavyweights within the FBI with an agenda to push.

There are two key stories to be told here.  The first is of 20-year-old Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) who founded the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers in late 1968.  He was a commanding public speaker who had a way of bringing people together to improve the lives of African Americans.  He was also a great negotiator and mobiliser.  There’s a memorable scene where he approaches the Young Patriots Organisation, a very different group, and forges a coalition to target issues such as poverty and police brutality.

The second tale is of criminal-turned-informant Bill O’Neal (Stanfield).  The 17-year-old was caught stealing a car in 1966 and, so as to avoid a lengthy prison sentence, he accepted a deal to work under the direction of FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemons).  O’Neal became Hampton’s chauffer and it wasn’t long before he was part of the Black Panther’s inner circle.

Both characters face a moral dilemma.  O’Neal learns the Black Panthers aren’t “sowing hatred” (as he’d been told by the FBI) and in betraying in their trust, he’s betraying the entire African American community.  He’s trapped though.  If he were to reveal his identity, he’d either be sent to jail by the FBI or killed by the Black Panthers.  In the case of Hampton, his girlfriend (Fishback) is pregnant with their first child.  By making himself the face of the Black Panther movement, he realises he could meet the same fate as Martin Luther King and, therefore, leave his child without a father.  Is it time to reassess his life?

Judas and the Black Messiah struggles with the breadth of material.  Two hours is not enough time to fully dissect these characters and their troubled psyches.  It takes large leaps and you’re not quite sure what has taken place in between to justify a change in relationships.  A good example is Jesse Plemons’ FBI handler character who shows glimpses of integrity in some scenes while coming across as a one-dimensional villain in other scenes.

This is still a film to be seen for its broader narrative and its performances.  I’m not quite sure how Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) slips into the supporting actor category (it feels he’s joint-lead with Stanfield) but after winning the Golden Globe last week, he’s an odds-on favourite to take home an Oscar statuette next month.  It’s a juicy role that comes with grand speeches in front of big crowds and heartfelt duologues with his worried girlfriend.

If you’re a sucker for interesting true stories, Judas and the Black Messiah is a film you must see.