It’s a word that comes with all manner of negative connotations. Snitch. Or, to use the more formal description, informant. It’s the latter that gets more of an airing in Shaka King’s much-anticipated Judas And The Black Messiah, but they both mean the same – a shady, duplicitous business. This particular informant’s story is based on true events from the 1960s, shot through with an air of classical tragedy that resonates down the years and would have had Shakespeare picking up his quill in a heartbeat.
“I am. A revolutionary.” was the rallying cry of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers in 1969. His outspoken political beliefs and popular appeal brought him to the attention of the FBI, who deemed him and his party as much of a threat to the country’s stability as the KKK. So the Bureau manipulates petty criminal Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) to infiltrate the movement and feed them information so that the threat can be minimised and, ultimately, wiped out.
What’s immediately striking about the film is that both men carry equal weight in the story, rather than it being a eulogy to Hampton or a straight out condemnation of O’Neal’s betrayal of the man, and the people around him, who counted him as a friend and comrade. And it shows how the systems of inequality, racism and oppression prevailing at the time drove their individual actions. It means that what could have been a piece of bombast is actually a much more mature and perceptive piece of work, giving both Kaluuya and Stanfield roles of a lifetime. The public side of Kaluuya’s Hampton is frighteningly articulate, charismatic and passionate in his beliefs, while in private he’s shy and tentative in his relationship with partner Deborah Johnson (a revelatory performance from Dominique Fishback). Stanfield’s O’Neal is no straightforwardly sneaky snitch, increasingly torn apart by his allegiances and close to cracking under the pressure.
The passion, intensity and indignation of the film is there for all to see, but King takes a controlled approach so that, as the audience immerses itself in the story and the issues surrounding it, it never runs away with them. He also skilfully adds some reality into the drama in the shape of archive material, most notably at the start with footage from O’Neal’s only TV interview, which took place in 1989. Except that he’s played by Stanfield. The interview features in the closing moments as well, but this time we see the real O’Neal saying the same words. We also learn he killed himself afterwards. Hampton, on the other hand, died at the age of just 21.
The narrative is tragic on so many levels, from the personal to the universal, reflecting the religious connotations of the title – O’Neal was, of course, paid for being an informant and Hampton has his own equivalent of the Last Supper before his demise, something which happens off camera, experienced only through Fishback’s pained eyes. It’s a magnetic, compulsive piece of filmmaking, that demands to be seen and heard – more than once – and which hits its targets with unerring accuracy.
Drama, History | Cert: tbc | Sundance 2021 | Dir. Shaka King | Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen.