The incendiary story of the charismatic head of the revolutionary Illinois Black Panther movement and the snitch who trailed him is captured in the compelling drama Judas and the Black Messiah.
Inspired by fact, it is set in the late ‘60s – one of the most tumultuous and pivotal periods in American history.
FBI director J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) turned his sights on the black community to neutralise what he termed “Black Messiahs”. He was referring to rising black and civil rights leaders.
In 1967, he opened a file on an African American midwestern college student named Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whose community activism had brought him to the attention of the agency.
Hampton, who became chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968, led the organisation’s fight for freedom, self-determination and an end to police brutality and the slaying of blacks.
The FBI identified Hampton as a key militant leader who posed a danger to national security.
Around this time, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) was arrested for stealing a car and impersonating an FBI agent.
Interrogated by Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), he was told he faced a lengthy prison term or could walk free by becoming a counterintelligence operative and infiltrating the Illinois Black Panther Party.
Specifically, Mitchell had in mind keeping tabs on the Party’s leader, Fred Hampton.
Inside the Illinois chapter of the BPP, Hampton’s political prowess continues to grow.
He also falls in love with fellow activist Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback).
That relationship profoundly affects both Hampton and Johnson, galvanising her involvement in the cause.
O’Neal finds his situation growing more complex the deeper his infiltration goes and the closer he gets to Hampton.
Judas and the Black Messiah marks the studio feature film directorial debut of Shaka King, who co-wrote the script with his writing partner Will Berson, along with Kenny and Keith Lucas.
While the basis of the story, namely the FBI using a stool pigeon, is straight forward, there is a lot more going on and requires a level of concentration to follow.
Much has to do with the politics at the time and the various groups on the rise that Hampton tries to bring together.
Daniel Kaluuya is fast building an impressive body of work and Judas and the Black Messiah continues his upward trajectory.
He readily plays charismatic and is mighty convincing doing so.
Hampton is portrayed as a man who talks of violent uprising, but prefers the power of language.
LaKeith Stanfield brings an uneasy nervousness to his persona as the “bought” informant.
Dominique Fishback is plausible as a deep-thinking young woman whose head is turned when she first hears Hampton speak.
Jesse Plemons quickly won me over as the FBI Special Agent with a calm demeanour who knows just what to do to keep reeling in William O’Neal.
Martin Sheen impresses too. His self-absorbed showing as J Edgar Hoover makes him instantly dislikeable – exactly what the role calls for.
On occasion, try as I did, I found it difficult to understand some of the language.
That aside, Judas and the Black Messiah casts us back to a severe period of unrest and disquiet and gives us insights that gall, to say the least.
Rated MA, Judas and the Black Messiah scores an 8 out of 10.