- Colin Fraser
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
THREE STARS Things won't end well once an FBI agent is planted in the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers.
PERIOD DRAMA US #JUDASANDTHEBLACKMESSIAH
Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield
This detailed account of an FBI plot to bring down the Black Panther movement from the inside has all the trappings of a gripping period-drama, and for the most part, it is.
In the early 1970’s Fred Hampton (GET OUT’s Daniel Kaluuya), head of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, is gaining too much traction for FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). He orders Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to place an undercover operative and get some intelligence on the group’s leader; to find someone who fears failing the FBI more than he fears being caught by the Panthers. Their man, a failed car thief with nothing to offer but fear, charm and a quick wit soon finds he’s won Hampton’s trust.
In many ways, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is a film of two halves. One is the story of Hampton - an energising figure whose sense of social justice propelled him from a very young age. His popularity earned the attention of Hoover who was prepared to remove the man by ‘whatever means necessary’. It’s a fascinating account of determination and a man’s acute sense of social justice, one clearly defined by Kaluyya’s robust performance.
The other half is a lot less engaging and as a consequence, undermines much of the greater story. The motives of Mitchell’s operative (Judas from the title) never fully reveal themselves - fear of the FBI is not a good enough reason to be complicit in helping ‘the man’ dismember an organisation he supports. Unless he’s stridently naive, and there’s nothing to suggest he is, Judas knows the outcome of his efforts, and it won’t end well. Where Hoover’s mob goes, guns and death surely follow. Thus the operative is little more than a cipher, a perplexing choice.
Therefore the real story, a gritty one of duplicity, self-denial and betrayal is diminished in favour of glorifying Hampton’s work and eventual undoing. Which is not to say this isn’t worthwhile. As mentioned, his is a fascinating account. But so too is that of the man who lies with the enemy, a calculating man who betrays his own people. More time inside his head would have turned JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH from the good film that it is into something quite extraordinary.