Film Review – Judas And The Black Messiah

Judas And The Black Messiah (MA)

Directed by: Shaka King

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

In the late 1960s, when directionless, small time Chicago criminal Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is busted impersonating an FBI Agent in order to steal cars, he is given an ultimatum by Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons): infiltrate the local branch of the Black Panther Party as a spy for the FBI or go to prison.

Left without much choice, Bill joins the political party and feeds information to Agent Mitchell about strategies and Party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whose influence around town is increasing. His tactic is to form alliances with rival minority gangs for a stronger political presence – something FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) sees as a threat.

O’Neal soon finds himself in a moral dilemma, caught between his growing loyalty to a party and its leader with whom he begins to side with and Agent Mitchell, who is the only person that can ensure his freedom.

Based on a true story about a particular chapter of history rarely presented on film, Judas and the Black Messiah gives us just enough information and builds the right amount of dramatic tension to entertain, bring about awareness but also encourage us to seek out more facts.

The basic set-up is familiar (man caught dangerously between loyalties can even be seen in such popcorn fare as The Fast and the Furious – but hey, it works!), but this smartly scripted version of events sidesteps most tropes and cliches, which is one of its many strengths. Had possibly any scriptwriter other than Shaka King and Will Berson been responsible, the two men would have become Frodo and Sam-like BFFs in a cringey attempt to over-dramatise the betrayal.

The performances are solid, particularly Kaluuya’s electrifying speech giving scenes, however, there are times early on when O’Neal seems just a little bit too comfortable infiltrating the group, but that is simply a minor quibble. At times low-key in its dramatic arcs and others, gut-punchingly devastating, Judas and the Black Messiah is always a measured and engaging experience.

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