Reform vs Revolution
The Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful, right hook to the brain of a drama. During a backdrop of 1960s America, reminding the viewer that little progress has been made regarding equality.
Directed by Shaka King, in his first major film it retells the story of Bill O’Neal who after being caught in a stolen car became an informant for J Edgar Hoovers FBI, tasked with infiltrating Chicago's Blank Panther Chapter. O’Neal soons rises through the ranks whilst getting close with the Chairman of the Chapter Fred Hampton. The film follows Bill's journey from being stopped by the police to the dramatic, and climatic conclusion of his time spent informing. During Freds life, he formed the Rainbow Coalition in which his Black Panthers were joined by other groups such as the Young Lords (Hispanic), Young Patriots (Whites) and brought an alliance between street gangs to work toward social change.
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred ofcourse steals the show with his engaging and gripping performance as Fred Hampton well deserving of his critical acclaim (& Oscar). I really got the feeling Daniel believed in what Fred stood for which reflected in his acting. LaKeith Stanfield as "Wild" Bill O'Neal is good, but perhaps overshadowed by Daniels Fred. Jesse Plemons as Roy, in another supporting role, is fairly wooden, aside from a scene opposite an unrecognisable Martin Sheen as J Edgar Hoover. Dominque Fishbacks performance as Deborah is a hidden gem, as she plays the role with such conviction and emotion.
At the time, Fred and the Black Panthers were viewed as radical threats that could be the start of a revolution which could cause radical change in the US (Is Equality really radical??) The issues around racial equality and social mobility are clear, which the director I feel captures best during the scenes where Bill is being wined and dined by the FBI then he cuts back to the dimly lit, dank Black Panthers headquarters.
The film is unique in the sense it takes the tried and tested undercover informant doing good for Uncle Sam and turns it on its head. In this Uncle Sam is the Uncle you don't want over for Christmas, exploiting the vulnerability and greediness of Bill to do its evil bidding by becoming an informant. The stark differences between Fred and Bill really come forefront towards the end of the film, one selfless with the cause first and foremost, the other selfish with the cause being a way to make a quick FBI dollar. Fred is dynamic, popular and articulate, Bill is awkward, slimy and generally scummy. Throughout, little is made about Bill's history before his arrest, his family or friends which paints him as a loner, with his actions during the film firming his position. When he has to make a decision, it's always the one to line his pocket rather than to benefit those around him.
What I really enjoyed about this film is that it could have been told from at least three different perspectives. "Wild" Bill's story was selected, however I'd have been happy to sit and watch three hours of Fred, the exploration of the wonderfully played Deborah (Dominque Fishback). These three as well as Jesse Plemons “Roy” are brought together in a room during one of Fred's engaging speeches, with the excellent camera work collecting all of their different and contrasting emotions. The climatic ending to the film is really helped by the choice of not including any music - only the echoey boots on wooden floorboards and the blast of gun fire.
If the authorities did not fear equality, I do wonder how many more great things Fred Hampton would have contributed. It begs the moral question of where is the line between an informant and being exploited? Unfortunately many of the themes this film explores are still prevalent today which indicates reform is not sufficient, revolution anyone?
© 2021 Christian Pulman