Arriving with all the potency of a flashbang, Judas and the Black Messiah is a cast-iron historical thriller from director Shaka King. Skirting the same terrain as last year’s Aaron Sorkin drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, albeit in a much more dynamic fashion, it tells of Illinois Black Panther party chairman Fred Hampton, who was just 21 when he was assassinated by the FBI.
British-born Daniel Kaluuya – the star of Get Out – is sensational as Hampton and has already won a Golden Globe and been nominated for a BAFTA for his pulse-racing performance. Yet the strength of Judas… lies in an incredible ensemble. Among them, Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend, and LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, the petty crook who the FBI coerced into going undercover to penetrate Hampton’s inner circle.
Also on camera, Martin Sheen, heavily disguised under prosthetics, as J. Edgar Hoover. It was the FBI director who instigated this nationwide take down against the Black Panthers, the Black Power political party begun by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton that looked to provide community support in matters of food, education and healthcare. Jesse Plemons plays one of Hoover’s lieutenants, Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent that sets out to control and coerce O’Neal.
That King and his co-writer Will Berson come from a comedic background make their achievements even more impressive here. Berson worked on the shows Scrubs and Arrested Development, while King’s only previous feature credit was 2013’s Newlyweeds. This feels like a film made with all the anger and assurance of a young Spike Lee, with King hugely passionate about his subject matter and those at the core of this horrifying story.
Wisely King recruited the talents of Sean Bobbitt, Steve McQueen’s regular cinematographer since Hunger, to shoot the film, and Judas… looks sensational. It’s nothing deliberately overt or flashy; Bobbitt just captures the era with real aplomb. Filmed with a documentary sense of urgency, King also weaves in real-life footage, including of O’Neal on PBS doc series Eyes on the Prize II – the only time he was ever interviewed. His frank admissions are sickening, a gut-punch in a film full of them.
Judas and the Black Messiah is available on demand. For more details, click here.