Films have always been a great way to learn about history. Aside from wanting some time to themselves for a period there was a reason why teachers showed us films like Apollo 11, Breaker Morant and Mississippi Burning – because cinema is often a better way for someone to retain historical facts. Flash-forward to 2021 though and suddenly cinema has another function – letting some of us re-learn history with the correct facts portrayed in front of us this time.
If you went to High School during my generation you were probably taught CIA=good, Black Panthers=evil, which is why we were all a little confused when Marvel’s Black Panther arrived as a super-hero, but now thanks to the brilliant new film from director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) we are starting to learn what we taught was most likely the fairytale version of events.
Here in Judas And The Black Messiah we learn that the Black Panthers did want to start a revolution but not the kind of revolution that we were taught to believe. Here, the leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out) wants to change the world for all minority groups (not just the African American population of America) and he wants to do it through charity and book learning. In fact the guns and bombs that we were taught about were actually frowned upon and didn’t really come into play into firearms were used against the Black Panthers themselves.
On the flipside you had CIA Agents like Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons – The Irishman) who were wanting to appease J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen – The Departed) wanting to shut down the Black Panthers and depicting them as terrorists in order to do so. Here we see Mitchell basically blackmail petty thief Bill O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield – Knives Out), to infiltrate the organisation and then give him the information that he wants to hear. However, once O’Neil is accepted into the Black Panthers and sees they are not the terrorist group he has been told they are he suddenly finds himself conflicted but trapped.
Somehow Shaka King alongside his co-screenwriter Will Berson (Run Of The House) manages to make this film captivating without ever sugar-coating anything or even worse making the film preachy. They do this with the way that filmmakers should make a historical piece like this – put the facts out there on the screen and then get the audience to make their own mind up about whether they feel justice was done or not.
The brilliant screenplay of Judas And The Black Messiah results in a film that is never lacking for suspense and tension but at the same time gives you a great feel for the characters of the main palyers – Hampton, O’Neil and Mitchell. I will admit though that some of the peripheral characters did start to blend into each other after awhile but that certainly wasn’t the case for the leads who were shown in their full splendour – whether good or bad. The fact that Mitchell wasn’t just depicted as the ‘evil one’ also shows class and skills from the screenwriters as well.
That screenplay also lend to some of the finest acting performances that you are likely to see this year as well. LaKeith Stanfied is sensational as the divided Bill O’Neil and at times he even out acts the marvellous Daniel Kaluuya who brings his A-Game to a film that obviously means a lot to him. The highlight of the film though are the scenes between Jesse Plemons and Stanfield. Those people that have been watching Plemons since he burst onto our screens in Friday Night Lights always knew he was going to end up being a very special actor and here he comes to his fore. His scenes alongside Stanfield are amazing, they produce an energy and tension normally only reserved for theatre and at times it feels like the two men are at war while keeping the niceties out in the open. They are scenes that cinema lovers are going to truly savour.
Judas And The Black Messiah is a stunning film that not only corrects a major flawed historical belief but lends itself to some amazing acting and is filled with suspense throughout.