by Jordan King
I can still recall vividly the night of May 14th, 2018. Having just seen Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman make its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, I stepped out of the packed Debussy Theatre into the bitter cold of the night palpably shaking. Lee’s forceful, righteously furious cinematic adaptation of the true story of a Black undercover detective who infiltrated the KKK was a shock to the collective cinematic community’s system, an unsubtle rally against Trumpism that felt to all those present like a revolution that absolutely would be televised. BlacKkKlansman won Lee his first Oscar, and on release sent shockwaves through the industry that rippled outwards through a brewing cultural storm, the eye of which centred on race relations in modern America.
Tonight as I write this, on February 2nd 2021, that feeling of a cinematic and cultural revolution has come back around again, just as strong if not moreso than before. Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is an incendiary, tragic, uncontainable force of a film. Epic in both narrative and scope, this true story of the betrayal that led to the assassination of 21 year old Black Panther Illinois Chapter Chairman Fred Hampton in December 1969 has to be seen to be believed.
Following a series of archival clips of the Black Panther political movement over the film’s opening credits, King’s film begins in Chicago, 1966. Petty criminal William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), dressed in a trench coat and hat ‘like Humphrey Bogart or some shit’, walks into a bar impersonating a law enforcement officer whilst hiding his fresh-faced features beneath his hat. Initially cool and composed, William’s ill-thought through tactic of calling grand theft auto on parked cars outside so that he can hop in, hotwire them, and drive off into the night comes undone quickly when the young Black men in the bar rumble his hustle, chasing him away and leaving a nasty gash in his head as he scurries off into the night. From the word go, Lakeith Stanfield shows us the kind of character William O’Neal was. When he’s getting away with things, he’s cool as you like and can be charming as hell. But when things get dicey? Darting eyes and a feral jitteriness – which Stanfield’s youthful face and old soul’s eyes capture mesmerically – crack the cool exterior and expose a deeply vulnerable, cripplingly unsure core.
When O’Neal winds up at a police station, bloodied, bruised, and like a rabbit in headlights as he stares down the barrel of a lengthy stretch in jail, FBI agent Roy Mitchell, played with manipulative neighbourliness by an unnerving Jesse Plemons, offers him a way out. Tasking O’Neal with informing on the rapidly mobilising Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, whose leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) has been inspiring a revolution in his community and anxiety in the White House, Mitchell sets O’Neal on a path that will see him invoke the name of the Biblical traitor from which the film’s title is drawn.
When we meet Fred Hampton, it is in entirely different circumstances to those in which we first found O’Neal. Just as fresh-faced as his fellow Chicagoan but emboldened and focused by a radical, revolutionary polemic that gives him a sense of purpose O’Neal crucially lacks, we find Hampton delivering a speech in a community centre to a rapt audience. As DoP Sean Bobbitt’s elsewhere fluid camera fixes on Kaluuya’s Medusan glare, a recurring visual marker and reminder of Hampton’s transfixing presence, the young revolutionary delivers a thunderous diatribe against the futility of the concept of reform, which ‘only teaches slaves how to be better slaves’. Kaluuya’s British accent dissolves entirely into the smooth vowels and lost consonants of Hampton in a performance that represents the best we have seen yet of an emergent acting powerhouse, and in each of the scenes such as this where we get to see Hampton – and by extension Kaluuya – in full flow, it is easy to see how the man earned the brand of ‘The Black Messiah’. When Dominique Fishback’s Deborah Johnson approaches Hampton at the end of his first speech, she calls him ‘a poet’, and that’s about the best single word to summarise Hampton’s expressive eloquence and soulful nature.
That early encounter between Johnson and Hampton, unbeknownst to the pair at the time, sows the seed of a romance that will blossom both tragically and beautifully over the course of King’s film, one which reveals Hampton’s underlying sensitivity and situational shyness and one that also reveals Johnson’s tenacity and selflessness. Whilst Hampton waxes lyrical on how ‘you can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill a revolution’, inspiring the masses whilst offering himself up as a martyr to the cause, Johnson pens poetry to her unborn child asking questions of the world and life they will be born in to. Fishback’s performance is every bit as intrinsic to the success and power of the film, and in a scene in which she reads her work aloud to Hampton after he has been released from a stint behind bars, the emotion invested in Fishback’s portrayal of Johnson is overwhelming to behold.
As King’s film moves forward, O’Neal ingratiates himself with Hampton and the Panthers, rapidly rising through their ranks as he first acts as Hampton’s personal chauffeur (a ploy in part to gage how luxurious the perks of life as a Fed can be) and then becomes head of his security detail. While Hampton seeks to unify the Panthers with other organisations such as The Lords and The Patriots to take on the establishment and the law, O’Neal seeks to continue currying Mitchell’s favour whilst avoiding the fate of several rats in the Panthers’ ranks who have been murdered as a warning to anyone else considering going rogue. As things careen towards that fateful night of December 3rd, 1963, we are given a comprehensive, classily delivered and compellingly told account of just how things went down.
What King as both director and writer does so stunningly whilst ostensibly delivering the first comprehensive cinematic document of these events to viewers is he allows Hampton and O’Neal’s stories to live in areas of uncertainty and subjectivity. We know where things will end, which adds to the tragedy of the film and its characters, but King guides us through the liminal spaces in the facts of the case to fully three-dimensionalise two figures who – as is the way with things when times change and events fade into the rear-view – could otherwise have remained mere figures and nothing more. Yes, O’Neal is Judas in this story, and yes, we are given Hampton as The Black Messiah, but in the multitudes of nuances and subtleties in both Kaluuya and Stanfield’s performances as well as the script, there is room for ambiguity and discussion. Hampton was a firebrand and a figurehead for the BPP, a man who delivers such incendiary rhetoric as ‘Kill all the pigs – complete satisfaction’, but he also gets tongue tied trying to flirt and gets misty-eyed comforting a grieving mother. O’Neal betrayed his brothers and sisters in the cause, leading to the death of Fred Hampton, but he also fought for justice for fallen Panthers and tried to find a way out when he realised how far the Feds were willing to go to get rid of the Hampton ‘issue’. The facts of the Fred Hampton story may be written in the annals of history in black and white, but here the story is coloured in many more varying shades.
‘I think I’ll let history speak for me’ says the real O’Neal in a clip shown at the film’s end – regardless of where opinion falls on the depths of O’Neal’s betrayal (Was he an out-and-out opportunistic crook? Or was he a lost young man who found where he belonged when it was tragically too late to get out alive?), King gives him a voice that is as vital as Hampton’s in this story. Stanfield’s embodiment of O’Neal as a man who could have been a Hampton if he’d had the courage to make better choices, who smiles when he’s getting away with duping his peers whilst actively worrying about them and losing his place amongst them, to me at least cements King’s film as a diptych of tragedy with two victims.
Shot through smoothly by Sean Bobbitt, boasting a fantastic jazz-inflected score from Craig Harris and Mark Isham that sets the rhythm and timbre of the film in such a way as to make two hours fly by, and sporting an era-authentic, eye-catching production design that fills every frame with life and vibrancy, Judas and the Black Messiah is every inch as technically remarkable as it is narratively and thematically staggering. Elevated to masterpiece territory by its two lead actors and a perfectly cast ensemble, Shaka King’s thought-provoking sophomore feature looks set to spark the next revolution in Black cinema. If Judas and the Black Messiah is anything to go by, then that revolution may well have found a prime candidate for its leader.