The Plot: Chicago, 1968. Revolution is in the air, not just in Chicago but elsewhere in the world. Petty car thief Bill (LaKeith) is busted while flogging a fake FBI badge. He can go to jail… or turn informant for the Feds. He opts for the latter, passing on information to his handler Roy (Jesse Plemons) about the activities of the revolutionary brothers and sisters in the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther party, headed by Deputy Chairman Fred (Daniel Kaluuya). Perceived as a threat to national security by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), Fred is targeted by the FBI. He’s a passionate speaker, full of revolutionary spirit but in a non-violent manner. As Bill sinks deeper into the cause of the Black Panthers, he starts to question his own motivations culminating in an agonising decision…
The Verdict: While now available from the comfort of your own sofa, Judas And The Black Messiah is one film that would have benefitted greatly from its originally intended big-screen experience. This is a film that is sweepingly cinematic and slickly made, but also a film that would have a greater resonance with a crowd of cinemagoers rather than viewed in isolation. Even director Shaka King has only watched it with his wife at home, so we’re not the only ones. It’s a film with a big heart and a louder voice. While it may seem like a studio product wrapped up in a familiar undercover snitch story, there’s a subtly subversive undercurrent running through it which aligns with the revolutionary ideals of the Black Panthers themselves. The end credits even sneak in a dedication and a clenched fist to victims of political oppression everywhere.
The script by King and Will Berson positions itself as a contrasting portrait of two young men. The slippery Judas figure who is set to betray the idealistic man he looks up to: the Black Messiah and man of the people who openly addresses the injustices of the time, while promoting equality and progression for African-Americans in his community. Bill gets caught up in the whirlwind of activity around the Black Panthers, getting closer to Fred and ascending to a position of power as his chapter’s Security Officer. Even his revolutionary ideas are a bit much for Fred though. The latter is in a tender romance with Deborah (Dominique Fishback), making Fred a more reasonable man but a militant one whose words speak louder than his actions. ‘Where there’s people, there’s power’, Fred remarks at one point.
It’s how these two very different storylines intersect that makes this film so compelling and righteous. Only King’s second feature, he directs with a confident flair and brings out the inner conflict in his characters through committed performances from his actors. Kaluuya and Stanfield previously featured together in breakout hit Get Out and their shorthand together makes for an easy onscreen chemistry. The snitch role here could have been a more throwaway one, but Stanfield digs deep to portray Bill as rather enjoying the thrill of being an informant while also fearing a dark night of the soul if he’s caught. Kaluuya is equally good, suggesting that Fred is no fool and has clear ideas about what being a revolutionary means to him and the Black Panthers.
While it works as a well-crafted and stirring piece of old-school entertainment, Judas And The Black Messiah does have a hidden message that the filmmakers have alluded to. The storyline parallels to current troubles in America regarding law enforcement brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement suggest that little has changed in half a century. It is a story of now, as it is a story of then. Power to the people is that message and it’s all packaged in an appealing format that will get people doing the most important thing: talking about it. It’s already taking on a life of its own: a bill has been re-introduced in the US Congress to strip Hoover’s name from the FBI Headquarters in Washington D.C. Subversive indeed.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Judas And The Black Messiah
Judas And The Black Messiah (USA / 15A / 125 mins)
In short: Power to the people
Directed by Shaka King.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Martin Sheen.