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Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

April 24, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

2021 Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), Best Supporting Actor (LaKeith Stanfield), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Sean Bobbitt), and Best Original Song – “Fight for You”

Confidently directed by emerging filmmaker Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah dramatizes the life and death of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who was assassinated by the FBI in 1969.

It more specifically focuses on the betrayal that he faced at the hands of another Black man, petty thief turned FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). At the start of the film, O’Neal is attempting to steal a car by posing as an FBI agent.

He is arrested, where agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) gives him two options; he can either spend several years in jail, or cooperate with the FBI and become an informant to infiltrate the Black Panthers and help them take down Hampton, who is viewed as a threat due to his revolutionary politics.

O’Neal takes the plea deal and becomes an informant, positioning himself at the forefront of the Black Panthers, but he starts to be swayed by the charismatic Hampton, causing him to feel conflicted about the role he is playing in taking him down. The film does a compelling job of depicting the dynamic between Hampton and O’Neal, with O’Neal becoming increasingly involved in the Black Panther Party, and Hampton seeing no reason not to trust him. But O’Neal is compelled to go along with the feds, lest he be sent to prison. It’s a wholly tragic Catch-22. This leads to some heartbreaking moments when we start to realize the full weight of his betrayal.

O’Neal finds Hampton working to build a “rainbow coalition” that includes poor white and Puerto Rican people as well, recognizing that, despite being separated by race, they are facing a similar class struggle. In one of the film’s best scenes, Hampton goes into a meeting of the Young Patriots, an organization of poor, Southern white people, where a Confederate Flag hangs ominously behind the podium. The people at first treat him with hostility, before starting to nod along with his impassioned speech about police brutality and their shared economic struggle, and how they are forced to pay into a corrupt system.

The best part about Judas and the Black Messiah are the performances. For it to work, it is important that they get Hampton right, and the raw power of Kaluuya’s performance is the defining aspect of the film. The conviction that he brings to Hampton’s speeches is often mesmerizing to watch, and Kaluuya is positively electric in these scenes. Stanfield does an excellent job of portraying O’Neal’s dual allegiances, and the toll that this takes on his mental heath.

Both men received Best Supporting Actor nominations for their work, and while you can argue that Stanfield is actually the lead, both performances are worthy of recognition and work brilliantly in support of each other. The third piece of the puzzle is Plemons, who has morphed into one of our finest actors before our very eyes. He delivers a quietly compelling performance as Mitchell, a man who is not necessarily a villain because he himself is evil, but rather because he is choosing to uphold a corrupt system and helping it operate.

With that said, the film falls just short of being the epic crime drama about power and betrayal that it sets itself up to be, and probably would have benefitted from spending a little more time developing its characters and really exploring their politics. Despite being set up as the lead, O’Neal doesn’t feel as developed as Hampton, with the film never really telling us much about where he came from.

The background characters also aren’t as developed as they could have been, and sort of blend into each other. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, and there’s a scene between Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) that feels somewhat heavy-handed. The screenplay by King and Will Berson should have been more fleshed out in these regards, and another half-hour could have easily been added to the film’s roughly two hour running time.

There are a lot of moral and political complexities behind the story, and the film isn’t able to unpack them all in just two hours. Still, this is a consistently engaging drama that offers a fine overview of Hampton’s story, and a decent introduction to the history of the Black Panthers. The film’s period elements are all solid. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography captures the look and feel of the late 1960s, and King stages some chilling moments of violence between the Panthers and members of the police force that feel appropriately visceral with their shocking brutality.

With production values, editing, and musical choices that are slick throughout, Judas and the Black Messiah is mainly worth seeing for the trio of excellent performances from LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya and Jesse Plemons that give the film its staying power. And, while I wish she had more screen time, Dominique Fishback also delivers a fine performance as Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson, leading to an emotionally gutting final closeup on her face.

Judas and the Black Messiah is now available to rent on Premium Video On Demand.

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