JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Shaka King

Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jessse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Martin Sheen, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Brit-Gibson.

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The persecution and assassination of Fred Hampton in 1969 is the subject of this docudrama and is a perfect film for the era of the #BLM movement.

The black messiah of the title here is Fred Hampton (played here by Daniel Kaluuya, from Get Out, etc), a firebrand activist for black rights. Although not as well-known as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, Hampton was the charismatic and outspoken head of the Illinois chapter of the activist Black Panther movement, but his death does not resonate with people in the same way as those other black civil rights leaders. He was a skilled orator and a savvy activist who was rapidly rising through the ranks. His urging for violent overthrow brought him to the attention of J Edgar Hoover, the powerful head of the FBI, and its COINTELPRO unit – this was the same special branch of the FBI that ran illegal counterintelligence operations against perceived enemies of the United States in the 60s and 70s. They spied on actress Jean Seberg, as depicted in the recent biopic Seberg.

The Judas is Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stansfield), a young black man and grifter who steals cars by impersonating an FBI agent. He is caught by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who convinces the self-serving O’Neal to infiltrate Hampton’s inner circle and feed back information that will help the FBI bring him down. O’Neal walks a dangerous tightrope, wondering if he will be exposed, and he is troubled by his conscience.

Chicago in the late 60s was something of a magnet for political unrest and a flashpoint for much tension – there was the riot outside the Democratic National Convention in 1967, and the subsequent controversial trial of the so-called Chicago 7 (events which are briefly recounted here). Judas And The Black Messiah is the sophomore feature for director Shaka King (2013’s Newlyweeds), who gives us a snapshot of the turbulent and violent clashes of the era here. He has fashioned the screenplay along with first time feature scriptwriters Will Berson and Keith and Kenneth Lucas and they explore the Panthers and their politics and ideology.

King brings a pseudo-documentary style to the material with plenty of archival footage integrated into the drama, which gives us a strong sense that we are watching history unfold. The period detail reeks of authenticity. The cinematography from Sean Bobbitt (12 Years A Slave, etc) is good and gives the material an epic sweep.

But while King and Berson try to make sense of the complex political background and intrigue, the film becomes a fairly drawn-out affair, and the vast array of characters becomes a little confusing, and seem underwritten. And the chronology is a little incoherent. The relationship between Hampton and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, from The Hate U Give, etc), who was heavily pregnant with his child at the time of his death, remains largely relegated to the background.

Kaluuya is charismatic as the outspoken Hampton, while Stanfield earns some sympathy for his portrayal of the shallow and self-serving O’Neal. As is usual with biopics these days we get plenty of footage of the real life characters. J Edgar Hoover has been played on screen many times before, most notably by Broderick Crawford in Larry Cohen’s The Private Files Of J Edgar Hoover and Leonardo Di Caprio in the 2011 Eastwood directed biopic, but Martin Sheen brings a sweaty and sleazy quality to his performance. It may be a small role, but Sheen is memorable.

★★★

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