An intriguing variation on Spike lee’s BlacKKKlansman is this passionate, evocative true-life account bookended by a PBS special over three decades ago. Life that film there’s also an eerie epilogue that makes for timely provocation.
Judas and the Black Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield (both in Jordan Peele’s breakout hit Get Out) and helmed with unflinching honesty by Shaka King. The horrors are balanced rather well by levity as oppression is met by a movement in 1968 Chicago (through shot in Cleveland which might prove distraction for some Windy City folks).
In the local chapter of the Black Panthers Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton is an inspiring orator on the rise. That allure and charisma has an effect on a small-time crook turned FBI informant Bill O’Neal (Stanfield also of Knives Out and Sorry To Bother You).
The script probes the political in telling encounters, whether in softer or impassioned tones. As targeting without cause by law enforcement and government officials encroaches and escalates with different vantage points unveiled. O’Neal is coerced into a dark place as he begins to embrace the message of Hampton and the Panthers. While reporting to his agent/handler Roy (Jesse Plemons) under the watchful guise of biased FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, less sympathetic and more arrogant here than in Martin Scorsese’s Boston-based infiltrating crime drama, The Departed).
Especially from Kaluuya there’s noticeable shading from edgy, even humorous situations. At times he gives Fred such a rousing, imposing presence that almost demands recognition. But he also can latch onto the character with sensitivity noticeably Shen he’s involved with Deborah, filled with fiery eloquence by Dominique Fishback. The humanity comes throughout her performances vary memorably near the close.
In the trickiest role Stanfield can be a brooding figure through motivations might not be easy to grasp in a hardscrabble, convincing milieu. You get the sense on where he stands when it comes to his tenets while a duplicity obviously isn’t likable. Perhaps being with an empowered man like Fred a little more could have drawn more for quite a spot of bother for this imposter. Sheen revels in Hoover’s vileness plastered in prosthetics and the versatile Plemons instills a certain moral relativism to Roy.
An immediacy comes in the literate narrative through authentic work from Kind and his technicians to make a turbulent period vital. Elements of the recent MLK/FBI and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are touched on with more detail that can eel cruel and reprehensible as politics and war are contrasted. As Judas and the Black Messiah in its referencing isn’t just a new testament to what is viable for society’s marginalized that continues to lead to unnecessary bloodshed.