Judas and the Black Messiah
WHERE TO WATCH:
Now showing in cinemas
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Offered a plea deal by the FBI, William O'Neal infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
I know very little of the Black Panther movement of the US in the sixties and seventies, except for their militant stance and black berets. It's always just been outside of my frame of reference as a white woman living in South Africa.
But even if you don't know much about the black consciousness party, it doesn't mean you shouldn't watch the thrilling biopic Judas and the Black Messiah. A film about Fred Hampton and William (Bill) O'Neal - one a visionary revolutionary with a promising political future, and the other the spy that would betray Hampton and his dreams for a better America for his people.
Instead of a straightforward biopic of the famous Hampton, the film's writers (including director Shaka King) framed his life from an FBI informant's perspective, turning it into more of a political thriller. The director had a firm grasp on the story he wanted to tell, clearly influenced by the modern police brutality that African Americans still face. It's not some intangible historical moment that the audience feels far removed from - we are there with them in the moment, engaging with the same turbulent emotions as fate turns against our hero.
These stories also wouldn't have been as poignant without the contribution of two unbelievably talented actors - David Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as O'Neal. Both brought depth and heart to their characters, each lead actors in their own right, and it's a travesty that the Oscars decided to nominate both in the supporting category. They travelled two different roads in the narrative, with O'Neal's story a dark shadow on Hampton's success. Stanfield perfectly exemplified the strain of living a double life, and when you consider the real-life facts shared at the end of the movie, it further cements the actor's achievements in bringing him to life. Other great casting choices included Dominique Fishback's poetic turn as Hampton's girlfriend Deborah Johnson and Jesse Plemons as the FBI agent that liaises with O'Neal.
My one critique, however, would be the apparent ageing up of Hampton and O'Neal. The worst part of this whole saga was that Hampton was only 21 when he was assassinated, while O'Neal was only 17 when the FBI recruited him to spy on the Black Panthers. They were basically teenagers, and I did not realise this at all during the film until afterwards. While Kaluuya and Stanfield were phenomenal, I wonder what kind of impact it would have had if the cast actually reflected their ages better - perhaps as a testament to the power of the youth that many older men fear.
Why should South Africans care, though? The most obvious answer would be that the American government of that time feels eerily similar to the Apartheid one, denigrating the black identity and elevating white superiority through the use of government-sanctioned subterfuge and murder.
It's not just the Black Panther's story - it's a universal story of institutional racism and prejudice and a reminder of the generational trauma that still infects non-white communities worldwide. Just one glance at the Black Lives Matter movement, and you'll realise some of the same issues the Black Panthers were fighting more than 50 years ago are still being fought today.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: