We speak of ‘timeliness’ as if acts of oppression stopped at some period. Its incorrect use can denote naivety; an exchange of ignorance towards people still experiencing systemic racism.
In the case of Shaka King’s (Newlyweeds) powerful historical-drama, Judas and the Black Messiah, historical parallels not only connect atrocities of today with yesterday, but they reveal a progress that never came.
Based on true events, JATBM follows the Black Panther Party, led by revolutionist ‘Black Messiah’ Fred Hampton (Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya), in late ‘60s Chicago: an era post-Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The pain experienced by the Party has been brought on by rampant injustice, the murders of the aforementioned figures instrumental in the civil rights movement echoing loudly in their minds. The Party’s heated interactions with the establishment, succumbing to explosive interactions with the police and reckonings with political figures (Martin Sheen’s J. Edgar Hoover hellbent on perpetuating white-supremacy), are intertwined with the story of FBI informant, William O’Neal (Sorry to Bother You actor, Lakeith Stanfield).
We first meet Stanfield’s O’Neal as he attempts to steal a car under the guise of a police officer. He is unsuccessful and ultimately arrested. “The badge is scarier than the gun,” O’Neal later remarks when questioned by the police. His desire to avoid incarceration, a sentence almost immediately presented to him, arises in a deal with FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Their arrangement, causing O’Neal to be the eyes-and-ears of the FBI in place of punishment, garners for the initially homely – however complicit – Mitchell the promise of career advancement.
It is with O’Neal and Mitchell’s relationship where JATBM explores some the complexities of racial relations in America. It’s a feat which King delivers with fervent grit. Whether O’Neal is a traitor or victim is never fully formed, and rightfully so. Less interested in offering a judgement call on O’Neal, King shifts his focus on matters concerning the perseverance and incentivisation of racism. The depth of this becomes compounded by an ominous production design and a thumping score that resembles the rattling unease felt in Michael Abels work in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). Most of the film’s rationalisation is proclaimed in grand speeches by Hampton, these scenes offering up some of the film’s most affecting moments. Their inclusion further calls for the importance of political upheaval, for reform would only perpetuate inequality.
Stemming from this is a remarkable lead performance (emphasis on the word lead, despite what award ceremonies tell you) from Kaluuya, whose piercing stare and commanding presence doesn’t so much inspire as it does captivate. He delivers this with a wide-eyed and brazen composure that ignites a fire in not only the Panthers, but the audience. With this said, there is a noticeable, though forgiving, difference in age between thirty-two-year-old Kaluuya and the late-teens/early-twenties Hampton of the time. Rounding out the performance wheelhouse are powerful turns from Stanfield and Dominique Johnson (who portrays Black Panther, Deborah). Both actors, however differing in motivations, dig deep to deliver moving performances that speak to the hardships of the Black experience.
King’s politically-charged screenplay, for which he shares credits with Will Berson, provides an unflinching account of Hampton’s fight for progress; a depiction that is as moving as it is unrelenting. King is a director who aims for the emotional jugular. The effect of this comes through in the film’s Spike Lee-esque use of real-life footage to open and close the film; it has a harrowing effect that contextualises the experiences of the past with today.
There is a message of pain and urgency felt in JATBM. It is a film designed to be important, rather than entertaining (a needed changing of guard considering modern films penchant for feel-goodishness when presenting films about race). Appropriately so, there is little to celebrate with regards to the themes covered in Judas and the Black Messiah. Its unwavering recognition of a shameful time in American history offers a confronting, albeit necessary acknowledgment of a struggle that never went away.
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ opened in Australian cinemas on March 11th. In the US, the film was simultaneously in cinemas and digitally on HBO Max on February 12th.