Judas And The Black Messiah review: A tribute to the valour of civil rights activist Fred Hampton

Daniel Kaluuya plays the charismatic orator Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Daniel Kaluuya plays the charismatic orator Fred Hampton in Judas And The Black Messiah. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Rating: M18
Length: 126 minutes
Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons

Release: From 8 April 2021 at The Projector (Singapore)

Score: 3 out of 5 stars

SINGAPORE — As the trial of Derek Chauvin – the policeman who caused the death of African American George Floyd, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement – commences, it is perhaps apt that Oscar-tipped film, Judas And The Black Messiah, makes its premiere now.

Director Shaka King makes a bold and profound statement with this magnum opus, nominated best original screenplay for the 73rd Writers Guild of America Awards. The film branches out into the several intertwining plotlines of the fiery orator Frederick Allen Hampton, a leader of the Black activist group Black Panther Party, and Bill O’Neal, a con man and petty criminal who becomes a double agent for the FBI.

The respective actors, Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, have received nods from the Oscars for their portrayals, receiving nominations for Best Supporting Actor, which also drew confusion as to who they were both supporting.

It is definitely certain in my eyes that Stanfield was the Judas to Kaluuya’s Black Messiah, as the charismatic chairman Fred Hampton drove the story as the lead: rallying African American brothers to his side in an effort to bridge the gap between the different Black and Latino activist groups in 1960s Chicago. Hampton is all magnetic personality, but privately he is surprisingly timid when faced with the charms of his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback).

Rhetoric can be a potent weapon, as Hampton moves from one Black chapter to the next, ordering his subordinates to disarm themselves and stow their weapons (in a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent resistance) before entering another chapter’s turf to spread the credo of the Black Panther Party.

LaKeith Stanfield (centre, in cap) plays Bill O'Neal, a spy for the FBI in Judas And The Black Messiah. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
LaKeith Stanfield (centre, in cap) is Bill O'Neal, a spy for the FBI. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Ironically, Hampton’s philosophy pervaded far and wide, to the point that the FBI felt enormously threatened. Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) blackmails Bill O’Neal after a failed confidence stunt, forcing him to join the Black Panther Party as a spy in order to keep tabs on Hampton.

In contrast to Kaluuya’s mesmerising Hampton, Stanfield’s O’Neal is brilliantly conflicted; jittery yet convincingly two-faced. As O’Neal slowly gets closer to Hampton and gets promoted to security captain of the Party, he finds himself losing his soul; many a time he tries to quit being a spy, but the allure of money and the threat of interminable jail time just proves too much to bear.

Being a snitch is dirty work; to admit that you were a traitor takes even greater courage; the film reveals in the beginning that the real O’Neal was interviewed and told his story in an exposé.

Judas And The Black Messiah is a stunningly provocative portrayal of the hate, prejudice and fear that African Americans had to endure in the early days of the civil rights movement, and a tribute to the values and intense oratorical skills of one man who had an enduring impact on his community for generations to come.

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