My Verdict // ★★★☆☆
In the final moments of Judas and the Black Messiah, director Shaka King cuts back to the real documentary footage of William O’Neal, the ‘Judas’ figure of this betrayal drama, who says: ‘At least I had a point of view. I was dedicated’. King’s film not only struggles to dramatize that dedication but reduces the depth in the historical context and its foremost figures to the simplicity of its analogous title.
When O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) decided to impersonate a federal agent in order to steal a car on the Chicago South Side, he had no idea he’d become an Bureau asset for real. As COINTELPro Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) hangs lengthy prison sentences over his head, O’Neal is forced to infiltrate the Illinois Chapter of the rising Black Panther Movement. With young firebrand Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in the crosshairs of the bureau’s director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), the man must undermine the movement and seemingly lose his soul in the process.
King’s decidedly-not ‘Fred Hampton biopic’ has a nervy edge. The filmmaker’s muscular direction has real propulsive spikes in the tense atmosphere created through Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, punctuated by Mark Isham and Craig Harris’ moody score. It’s an unflinching exposure into a frightening period of state-sanctioned domestic terrorism against a defensive, community-oriented movement.
Yet, King’s screenplay- cowritten with Will Berson- just can’t make the central figures compelling enough. O’Neal is written flat as a tortured tool of the state who lacks any real convictions of his own. It isn’t really helped by Stanfield, as he gives his character a trembling, shifty persona that starts to strain credibility when adopted in almost every scene. Still, the actor’s eyes do convey that there is a conscience crumbling inside, especially when locked into lunch-time liaisons with Plemons. Likewise, Kaluuya captures the rhythm and energy of Hampton’s rhetoric and presence- especially in those rousing orations- but the performance peters out in the private moments with Stanfield or Dominique Fishback (who brings quiet, intense pride as Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson). Beyond clear admiration, what else are we to feel or understand about Hampton and his radicalism? The actors and director are devoted, sure, but the screenplay isn’t probing enough with its subjects to make this story really gripping- either emotionally or thematically.
King’s film certainly contests the criticism of the Panthers as an extremist or offensive organisation, pointedly denouncing equivalency with white nationalism as Spike Lee did in BlackKklansman. But the scantiness of the filmmaker’s depiction often dampens the Panther’s significance to mere tragic disciples of one charismatic shepherd. There’s little power given to Hampton and O’Neal, let alone The People.