wed 21/04/2021

Judas and the Black Messiah review - powerful biopic | reviews, news & interviews

Judas and the Black Messiah review - powerful biopic

Judas and the Black Messiah review - powerful biopic

Well crafted biopic brings another key episode in America's civil rights history into the light

Daniel Kaluuya wholly in character as revolutionary Fred Hampton

One of the sadnesses of covid is that films like Judas and the Black Messiah have been held over for release in the hope that cinemas will reopen. Immersive, intense features like this deserve to be seen in a darkened theatre with no distractions. But as the pandemic drags on in the UK, distributors are forced to debut big films on the small screen and it’s a real shame in this instance. 

One of the sadnesses of covid is that films like Judas and the Black Messiah have been held over for release in the hope that cinemas will reopen. Immersive, intense features like this deserve to be seen in a darkened theatre with no distractions. But as the pandemic drags on in the UK, distributors are forced to debut big films on the small screen and it’s a real shame in this instance. 

Writer-director Shaka King tells the true story of two young men whose fates intertwined in the civil rights movement in Chicago in 1969. Daniel Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, the charismatic chair of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who put his trust in William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, pictured below left), not knowing that he was working undercover for the FBI. The movie tracks how Hampton was a key force in the black rights movement which delivered food and education to the community. He  enrolled criminal gangs and militia groups to form a coalition campaigning for black rights and equality. His nemesis was William O’Neal, a teenage car thief who was caught impersonating an FBI agent. Caught by the police, he was handed over to the FBI who blackmailed O'Neal into joining the Panthers and informing on them; in return he got freedom from jail and cash.  

The film is equally interested in Hampton assembling a collective of freedom fighters as it is in the methods and motives behind O’Neal’s betrayal. Nothing is simple, this isn’t a straight biopic with lashings of exposition to spoonfeed an audience; it's necessary to have some knowledge of American civil rights history to follow the twists in the tale. There’s some overlap with The Trial of the Chicago Seven – which also featured Fred Hampton’s story ­– but here the activist's life takes centre stage. Martin Sheen (in bizarre make up) cameos as the loathsome FBI Director, J Edgar Hoover who used the Agency and the police to attack the civil rights movements. On Hoover's instruction, Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons pictured above right) inveigles O’Neal not only with threats of jail time and promises of payoffs, but also tries to play the good guy. Mitchell cites his part in the investigation of the KKK murders of civil rights activists in the south (which inspired the film Mississippi Burning).

A long-nurtured biopic, Judas and the Black Messiah has all the hallmarks of a carefully constructed project from the impeccably sourced soundtrack to the image grading which brings to mind the work of photographer/filmmaker Gordon Parks. It's got tension too, with the action sequences  as well choreographed as the scenes setting up the political climate. There's even room for a nuanced love story with Dominique Fishback (familiar from The Deuce) playing Deborah Johnson, the young activist who influences Hampton’s approach while falling in love with him. Her scenes with Kaluuya as Hampton, torn between the common cause of the revolution and the mortal danger it puts them in, are wholly convincing.

Stanfield is outstanding as the morally weak O’Neal and Kaluuya lends all his physicality to the part of Hampton; it’s a shame that the British actor’s mastery of Hampton’s Chicago accent sometimes makes his dialogue hard to follow – another reason to see the film in a cinema rather than on a small screen. The only regret in the casting is that both actors are in their thirties, whereas the real Hampton was a mere 21 and O’Neal only 17 when their paths crossed. But finding age-appropriate actors who could also attract the necessary budget and audience pulling power – and deliver equally high-calibre performances – is an ask too far. 

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