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The story of FBI informant William O'Neal's infiltration of the Illinois Black Panther Party.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Shaka King

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen

Judas and the Black Messiah poster

Like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, director Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of the murder of an iconic American figure largely through the lens of the man responsible for his demise.

The Judas of the title is William "Bill" O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a teenage car thief who in 1968, agrees to become an FBI informant in order to avoid an 18 month prison sentence. Under the thumb of agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O'Neal is tasked with infiltrating the Illinois headquarters of the Black Panther Party, specifically to provide evidence to put its charismatic young figurehead, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), behind bars.

Judas and the Black Messiah review

History is messy, and reality rarely conforms to three act structures, but King and co-screenwriter Will Berson structure their film using the template of a conventional undercover thriller ala Donnie Brasco and The Departed. The problem with this approach is that Hampton is no mob boss, but rather a committed political activist who just wants to do right by his people. By any metric we should be on Hampton's side, but using the thriller template means that we invariably find ourselves sweating along with the man who will ultimately betray him. The film frequently stages its suspense sequences in a manner that preys on our apprehension of O'Neal getting rumbled rather than our fear of Hampton getting executed.

The character of O'Neal doesn't slot comfortably into such mainstream, formulaic storytelling. He's the nominal antagonist here, but it's difficult to view O'Neal, who was a mere 17(!!!) when he started working for the Feds, as a cut and dry villain. Yes, he took the cowardly and dishonorable way out to avoid prison, but you have to remember that at the same time thousands of young American men were faced with a similar choice of going to prison or agreeing to kill rice farmers on the other side of the world. In reality O'Neal never admitted to any guilt over his role in the death of Hampton, but the fact that he took his life mere hours after the 1989 premiere of a TV documentary on his actions suggests that he had indeed been haunted by his past. Judas and the Black Messiah never takes a stand on whether to portray O'Neal as an opportunist who would gladly sell out his people for a few dollars or a young man manipulated into a Sophie's choice by forces he can't stand up to.

Judas and the Black Messiah review

Similarly, we never really get a handle on who Hampton was and why he was so revered. Reduced to a supporting player, Hampton is most often seen orating rousing speeches, and while Kaluuya is as towering in the role as it's possible for a 5'8" actor to be, we never see what those speeches lead to, what effect Hampton's leadership has in his community. Once again we have a mainstream American movie that doesn't understand the golden rule of "show, don’t tell." We hear a lot about how great Hampton is, and conversely the FBI talk a lot about what a threat he poses, but we're rarely given any visual evidence to back this up.

The most difficult aspect of Judas and the Black Messiah to swallow is the relationship between O'Neal and Mitchell. The FBI man becomes something of a paternal figure to O'Neal, even going so far as to invite him to his house and to join him for meals in fancy restaurants. Pull the other one. Are we supposed to believe that in the late 1960s a white FBI agent would invite an African-American criminal to his home, let alone be seen dining with him in restaurants? Would O'Neal even be allowed entry to such establishments? Maybe I'm being too cynical, but this seems wildly anachronistic, and I didn't buy a minute of the interactions between O'Neal and his handler.

Judas and the Black Messiah review

While Kaluuya and Stanfield are excellent here, the casting of two actors who are both a decade older than the youngsters they're playing heavily dilutes the drama. Kaluuya is 10 years older than Hampton was when he was killed, while it's impossible to buy Stanfield as a 17-year-old. You might argue that people aged a lot more rapidly back then, particularly if they had the tough upbringings of Hampton and O'Neal, but even so, not casting visibly young actors really feels like the film is shooting itself in the foot. If Hampton were played by a 21-year-old it would reinforce just what a dynamic figure he was, while if O'Neal were essayed by an actual teenager we'd view his actions in a very different light.

With so many issues, most of them oddly self-inflicted, Judas and the Black Messiah works neither as a historical biopic nor a thriller. It doesn't have the character depth to function as the former, and it fails as the latter because the people involved don't slot into conventional protagonist and antagonist roles. Like so many movies based on true stories, we learn more about the story and the people involved from the snippets of information given in the closing credits, and ultimately Judas and the Black Messiah is yet another two-hour prompt to visit a Wikipedia entry.

Judas and the Black Messiah
 is on Netflix UK/ROI now.