Our Take: 4 Stars
Just in time for Black History Month, Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a riveting account of the infamous events surrounding the life and death of Black Panther Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, “Black Panther”) during a tumultuous time in American history. With themes of racial injustice, police brutality and systemic oppression, the film tells a gripping story of the most relevant civil rights issues today.
Set amid the smoky streets of 1960s Chicago against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and a countercultural revolution, “Judas and the Black Messiah” follows the true story of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield, “Knives Out”) as he infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. At the beginning of the film, O’Neal is a petty criminal who quickly gets in over his head at the behest of CIA Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”).
Meanwhile, Hampton, a charismatic leader and ardent speaker, works to unite the oppressed groups in the city under his message of revolutionary socialism, in opposition to the Chicago police and the CIA. As Hampton’s influence grows, so does the desire of the people whose way of life he threatens to eliminate him. O’Neal finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict that descends into a cycle of violence, forced to choose between security on the one hand and a cause he is devoted to on the other.
Aesthetically, the film is engrossing from start to finish, offering an intimate snapshot into the lives of both men and those around them. It begins and ends with documentary-style clips of O’Neil, first portrayed by Stanfield and then by the man himself, that place the film in its time.
This sense of historicity is borne out by the grimy sets, realistic shoot-out scenes, and powerful script, while excerpts of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X play in the background.
Stanfield’s performance alone makes “Judas and the Black Messiah” well worth the watch.
His portrayal of O’Neal — a double-crosser and one of the easiest figures to condemn — provides an agonizing look at what it is to choose between two impossible options.
Rather than criticizing his actions, the viewer can not help but feel sympathy for O’Neil as the film shifts the responsibility for his increasingly poor choices onto a system that offers no alternatives.
Kaluuya in his turn provides a nuanced, magnetic performance that sucks the viewer in as much as it does Hampton’s fellow Panthers. His relationships with the other members, his influence over the surrounding gangs and his growing attraction to fellow Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, “The Hate U Give”) all contribute to a picture of a man who cares deeply about getting justice for those he cares about.
The film offers insight into Hampton the man as well as Hampton the Panther; ultimately, Hampton abides by his motto to live and die for the people.
On the other side of the conflict are the CIA’s Roy Mitchell and director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, “The West Wing”). Both Sheen and Plemons are slimy and despicable in their parts, playing the film’s villains a little too conveniently.
In exchange for all of the nuance of Kaluuya and Stanfield’s characters, the “bad guys” of the film are stereotyped into their roles with little thought given to the matter.
The film delves into both the atrocities and the charities on the side of the Black Panthers without excusing or condemning them; perhaps understandably, it does not offer the opposite side the same consideration.
The film’s underlying messaging is clear and uncompromising: it is the story of two men trapped in a system that was never meant to include them and held in place by those who it best serves.
The film strikes a resonant chord today; Hampton’s radical messaging via Kaluuya’s powerful delivery sounds familiar to any viewer who has lived through 2020.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” caters to the current moment perfectly — perhaps a bit too perfectly.
It feels almost as if the narrative has been oversimplified to appeal to the masses of people living through a civil rights movement of their own.
Nevertheless, the film offers insight into a tumultuous moment in history that never really ended, leaving the viewer to decide if and when the ends justify the means.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” will be available to stream on HBO Max on Feb. 12.