‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Is A Timeless And Compelling Piece of Cinema – Review
Judas and The Black Messiah (directed by Shaka King, written by King and Will Berson) is a story about FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) who infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). As a career thief, O’Neal revels in the danger of manipulating both his comrades and his handler, Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Hampton’s political prowess grows just as he’s falling in love with fellow revolutionary, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Meanwhile, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul.
Interestingly enough, the first time I screened this film was around the time there was an attempted coup on the government by the former president and his radical supporters. Echoing many of my colleagues, this is not a biopic of Fred Hampton, but more of a fictionalized slow-burn thriller. It focuses on the ensemble while also telling the story from O’Neals point of view. Shaka King does an incredible job of slowly immersing the audience into the corruption of the cops and the lengths they went to in order to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and stop Hampton.
The cast truly delivered on all fronts. As mentioned previously, the story is mainly told through O’Neal’s eyes which meant LaKeith Stanfield had to lead the movie – and out of all the films I’ve seen with Stanfield, I would say this is a career best. Stanfield was able to capture the complexities and internal struggles that O’Neal was suffering with perfectly. You could feel the anxiety and stress radiating from him during particular scenes where his loyalty is questioned by either the Black Panther Party or the cops. Stanfield has plenty of scenes with Plemons and the duo worked well together even when their characters didn’t see eye to eye. Plemons has come along way since Like Mike.
I cannot give Daniel Kaluuya enough praise as portraying Fredrick Hampton. From his role in Get Out to Widows to Queen & Slim, Kaluuya has always given himself completely to the character he’s portraying. This has never been clearer than what he demonstrated in Judas and the Black Messiah. Kaluuya really felt and believed everything that Hampton himself preached when he was alive. Every time he gave a speech it left an impact. It’s still mind boggling to me that Kaluuya (who is 31) portrayed Hampton who was 21 at the time of his assassination. Kaluuya felt like he was wholly rooted in the character.
Last but not least, is up-and-comer Dominique Fishback. I knew she was an incredible actor from her previous work and coming off of Project Power, I was extremely eager to see what she brought to this role. I know the phrase “scene stealer” is used more than it needs to be, but that’s truly how I felt any moment Fishback was on-screen. She and Kaluuya worked extremely well with one another and I believed everything between them. From the emotions they shared to how they spoke to each other, it was al so real. If Fishback wasn’t already on your radar, she definitely will be after this. I believe she, Kaluuya and Stanfield are all deserving of award season recognition, and nominations.
After finishing this movie, I found myself sitting there in silence, simply reflecting on it all. My heart was heavy, I felt a fire in my chest. This film would be timely during any period of time, however, I feel like this film is very impactful right now. As a young Black man myself who has experienced racism at the hands of law enforcement, it made me emotional to see what these people had to deal with during their fight for Civil Rights. It was even more poignant knowing that this wasn’t very long ago and when you compare it to what Black people have been fighting for now, it made me more infuriated that we still have to fight this hard for the right to simply exist.
With Judas and the Black Messiah, King crafted a timeless and compelling piece of cinema that will be referenced and spoken about for years to come. I hope this film enlightens many people to what the Black Panther Party was and about what Hampton’s objective was. I hope it goes the distance during award season; it certainly deserves it. As the headline says, Judas and the Black Messiah is a riveting film and it will linger in your mind for years to come.
Judas and the Black Messiah is in theaters and streaming simultaneously on HBO Max on February 12.
(Content warning: some scenes throughout the film are very intense, and include violence and police brutality. If you are not in the right headspace, please only watch the film while you are ready.)
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