Judas and the Black Messiah

 

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Daniel Kaluuya brings heft and charisma to his portrayal of Fred Hampton, landing him a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination.

 

Judas and the Black Messiah

Divisive times: Daniel Kaluuya (centre)

 

Over the years, the Black Messiah and his Panthers have been painted in a variety of colours by the cinema. Now Shaka King’s noble, powerful and authoritative biopic aims to set the record straight. The Judas in the woodpile is William O’Neal, a petty car thief coerced by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panther movement to dish the dirt on Fred Hampton, its Illinois chairman. If King’s stately, sprawling film lacks the momentum of a Scorsese or Tarantino crime epic, it is redeemed by terrific production values and a high level of acting. If it owes a debt to anybody, it is Spike Lee, whose BlacKkKlansman is resembles on more than one level. However, its familiarity, and genre tropes, play not in its favour.

 

Fred Hampton last cropped up on screen in The Trial of the Chicago 7, a secondary figure, essayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr. The Black Panther movement itself has featured in everything from Albert and Allen Hughes' Dead Presidents (1995) to Melvin Van Peebles's Panther of the same year. In the wake of the George Floyd outrage last May, the sympathetic light accorded the Blank Panther Party is more than seemly, while the police and FBI are depicted in broad, demonic strokes. An unrecognisable Martin Sheen, as J. Edgar Hoover, is particularly odious, although Jesse Plemons’ well-fed Fed is a more sympathetic beast. Just. The Messiah himself sees Daniel Kaluuya segue from Black Panther to Black Panther, where he is reunited with his Get Out co-star LaKeith Stanfield, as O’Neal, the rat in the ranks. As is the tradition of films “inspired by true events,” the real William O’Neal is featured at the end in genuine footage, taken from the documentary Eyes on the Prize 2, which premiered on PBS in 1990 on Martin Luther King Day. Later that very evening, O’Neal took his own life (allegedly).

 

As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya joins that growing rank of British actors who have embodied noteworthy African-American figures, from David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King and Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet Tubman to Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X. Here, while eleven years older than Hampton was at the time of his death, Kaluuya gives a convincing, charismatic and imposing reading of the activist. And, in amongst the numerous speeches, he is given some affecting downtime with his girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback), who wheedles out the poet and the boy in the impassioned orator. This is Kaluuya’s best work by a mile, and almost reason enough to see the movie. But, alas, the film’s moments of tenderness and humanity are far too few, and with its raft of characters and incident, it is often hard to follow. Nonetheless, its resonance with recent events makes it a compelling and crucial history lesson.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Robert Longstreet, Terayle Hill, Amber Chardae Robinson, Alysia Joy Powell.

 

Dir Shaka King, Pro Charles D. King, Ryan Coogler and Shaka King, Screenplay Will Berson and Shaka King, from a story by Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas, Ph Sean Bobbitt, Pro Des Sam Lisenco, Ed Kristan Sprague, Music Mark Isham and Craig Harris, Costumes Charlese Antoinette Jones, Dialect coach Audrey LeCrone.

 

MACRO/Participant/Bron Creative/Proximity-Warner Bros.

125 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 11 March 2021. Available on VOD. Cert. 15.