Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) Review

OF A MESSIAH AND HIS BETRAYER


 

For roughly the past decade, Hollywood has turned its gaze towards narratives that are “based on a true story”; looking to prompt viewers with real-world interest underneath a cinematic lens. While there have been a multitude these types of endeavors from gripping biographies or uncovering formidable cover ups, Tinseltown has seeing an interest in examining the racial injustice in the United States, especially within the African American community and using key moments within the nation’s history to propel feature films for inspiration. This meaningful discussion of cinematic undertaking has uncovered plenty of noteworthy moments of where members of the African American community (both as a collective body and prominent figures heads) and how they fight oppression and how their voices can be heard from a nation that radically sets racial injustice upon them by their color of their skin. Such memorable hits from this type of caliber of storytelling can be found in a wide variety of theatrical feature films like 2014’s Selma, 2017’s Detroit, 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, and 2020’s Just Mercy just to name a few. Now, Warner Bros. Pictures and director Shaka King presents the latest film to feature racial injustice with the cinematic look into Black Panther representative leader Fred Hampton in the movie Judas and the Black Messiah. Does the movie find insight within this cinematic undertaking or is a messy narrative that gets lost within its own tale of injustice

THE STORY


In 1968, young upstart Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is a low-level crook that poses as an FBI agent to help him steal cars from the locals; framing his mind that the law itself is powerful than a man with a gun in Chicago. During one such routine act, O’Neal is busted and faces criminal charges. However, he is instead offered a chance to skip his jail sentence, tasked with becoming a undercover snitch for the Bureau, working for his connection FBI liaison Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who senses a possibility to reach top ranked Black Panther officials in the area. This includes the high-profile case of one radical leader named Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whose ideals are setting the stage for the Black Panther movement in new and interesting ways. Going undercover as a Panther, O’Neal is exposed to the organization efforts to better the black community, with Fred a motivated leader looking to create new opportunities and strengthen their resolve against the government the police force. Loved by fellow Panther and poet Deborah Johnson (Dominque Fishback) and feared by law enforcement, with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) determined to silence his voice; putting pressure on O’Neal to find a way to dispose of this “Black Messiah” of the community and to appease Roy as the informant begins to gradually understand the cruel reality of life within his situation….and what he ultimately must do to come out of it alive.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


It’s no secret that the United States has face racial injustice on many fronts. As a nation, the US has sadly garnished a clashing of idealism based on racial differences throughout the country’s long history; subjecting African Americans to a wide range of lower class to the white race from slavery to the civil rights movement. Heck, even in today’s world, the oppression between the two races in the United States is still being fought; fighting for the injustice and equality that rightfully belongs. It is probably this particular reason why Hollywood have started to turn towards real-life events of such racial injustice to fuel feature films with insight and thought-provoking means behind such causes of figures and events that have taken place. Personally, the movies that I mentioned above in my opening paragraph prove to be the best of such examples as I liked them all from both an amateur film critic and as a person who enjoys history and learning more about some of unsung heroes who fought for change and the players that surround them…. both good or bad. All in all, I do applaud how Hollywood is taking the steps and measure to give a voice, platform and cinematic light to these racial injustice narratives; sparking discussions and debates as we (as a nation) come together to understand the past and build for a better tomorrow…. together.

This brings me back around to talking about Judas and the Black Messiah, a 2021 biographical film drama that seeks to examine the lives of both Bill O’Neal and Fred Hampton. In truth, I really didn’t hear much about this movie when it was first announced. I think I did remember hearing the name of the movie, which I do have to admit sounds pretty cool film title. Naturally, with a name like Judas and the Black Messiah, it’s clear (without knowning anything about the plot or movie itself) I knew that it was gonna be some type of betrayal of some kind; clearly referencing Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus Christs Twelve Apostilles, who betrayed Christ. Of course, after seeing the film’s movie trailer (I think I saw it a few months back), the movie seems to use that moniker as a reference to Black Panther party leader of Fred Hampton and the story of how he was betrayed. With a hook like that, I was definitely interested in seeing this particular project. With the movie falling under the Warner Bros. Pictures branch, Judas and the Black Messiah was released around mid-February 2021, with the film premiering simultaneously on HBO Max and in-theaters. Trying my best to catch up on other movies out there, I kept on pushing back my viewing this feature, with the idea of catching it soon on HBO Max. Then the award season started and I saw that actor Daniel Kaluuya won for Best Supporting Actor at both the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards for his portrayal of Fred Hampton in the movie. Soon, I got an alert on HBO Max that Judas and the Black Messiah will soon be taking off by March 14th, 2021 as part of the deal Warner Bros. made with the streaming service. So, feeling like I should finally put the movie at the forefront of my review critique, I decided to finally watch Judas and the Black Messiah a few days before it was taking off HBO Max. And what did I think of it? Well, it was pretty good. Despite stumbling in a few areas here and there, Judas and the Black Messiah is a skillful look into one of the lesser-known figures of racial injustice, with a film that provides plenty of insight and political drama to keep a viewer’s attention and in informative entertainment. It does falter in a couple of areas, but it is indeed a feature film that’s worth the watch.

Judas and the Black Messiah is directed by Shaka King, whose previous directorial works include such projects like People of Earth, High Maintenance, and Shrill. Given his background on more short films and TV shows in his career, King makes this particular film his most ambitious project to date; garnishing a gripping narrative to frame as well as skilled acting talents involved on the film. To that and quite surprisingly, King is up to the task and (for the most part) succeeds in making the movie quite engaging from start to finish. Personally, I didn’t know anything about either of Fred Hampton or Bill O’Neal and the roles that they played in this particular point of time in history (as seeing in the movie) and how much their lives get intertwined. Perhaps it is this reason why was I quite fascinated with the film; finding the story of both Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal quite some compelling work and almost something that was “tailored made” for some type of cinematic representation. Naturally, this comes into play in the movie and it seems that King hinges the feature on that notion; approaching the source material with a sense of honesty and with way to grip viewers by pulling into this world of revolutionist and crooked cops. For me, I was quite intrigued and very curious to see how the movie would play out. One would think that with all the historical bio pics and / or fictional dramas that have recently come out over the past several years that there won’t be anything left to explore or examine. Thankfully, King finds the informative scope of the feature’s narrative to be the main focal point; making Judas and the Black Messiah to be insightful in shedding light on both Hampton’s char mastic ways and O’Neal’s struggle and all the complexities going on in between these two men. Thus, whether you loved or hated the movie, you simply can’t deny that your (as a viewer) were informed by King’s movie about these two central figures of both leader and betrayer.

As a director, King does struggle a few times (more on that below), but where he his rhythm (where the feature shines the best) is within character dialogue moments. Approaching these sequences with great sense of vigor and frenetic charged (as a filmmaker) with the movie’s setting used as a backdrop towards the greater events that are playing out around them. Yes, while the big story of the movie is about the Black Panther movement and how the FBI (under Hoover’s direction) wanted to take down the chairmen of the organization, including Hampton, King never looses sight of the film’s two primary protagonists; depicting both Hampton and O’Neal and the paths that they choose and how there ultimately outcomes play out in each of their respective stories. This is where the movie is at its best, with King making Judas and the Black Messiah more of character-based drama and choosing the film’s direction to showcase a lot of character-built moments rather than spring head first into the large story at play. Plus, it seems that King lets the film’s nuances help aid those character driven moments, including the written script dialogue, cinematography, and the acting talents involved.In short, King’s direction for character dialogue moments rather than grand spectacle of the narrative of the era is a welcomed choice.

In addition, there’s no doubt about it that the movie is one of those “timely” releases, which adheres and speaks to what’s currently happening in today’s America. Thus, the correlations between the two is indeed palpable and one can easily see the comparison between how African American are voicing their concerns of racial injustice and equality. That being said, what King does do with Judas and the Black Messiah is more of a subtle way, with the film not having “hammering” the whole controversy between the two time periods, especially with dark and bloody violence. Oh yes, there is racial violence depicted in the movie, but it’s a bit more neutral and not that whole “shock and awe” than some films have come to express. What’s the word I’m looking for? Oh yeah, King doesn’t make the movie “insist” upon itself and….that’s good thing.

In terms of technical presentation, Judas and the Black Messiah delivers a solid job in bringing this particular era alive within the feature. A lot of the set decorations, production layout, and costume apparel as well as hair and make-up are definitely well-managed and well-represented in the movie; creating a very believable backdrop setting of late 60s / early 70s era within the Chicago region. This also benefits from the feature’s authenticity and lends credence to King’s vision for the film; feeling appropriate to the movie’s scenery and depictions on all fronts….be it city landscape, interior rooms, offices, and the various characters that populate. Thus, the film’s entire “behind the scenes” team, including Sam Lisenco (production design), Jeremey Woolsey (art direction), Rebecca Brown (set decorations), Charlese Antoinette Jones (costume designs), and Kristan Sprague (film editing) for their efforts made on the film and making their particular department shine. Even the film’s cinematography, which was done by Sean Bobbitt, has a few sleek sequences of camera usage to create some dynamic shots in some of the movie’s poignant moments. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Craig Harris and Mark Isham, delivers a good musical composition. Although, some of the music does feel a bit wonky at times, but, for the most part, it didn’t bother me.

That being a palpable story of Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal, Judas and the Black Messiah does struggle a bit in a few areas where the film can’t seem to find a proper footing. Perhaps the most notable point of criticism that I had with the project was in how the narrative can’t seem to really “hone in” on what it really wants to examine. What do I mean? Well, it’s combination of King’s direction and in the film’s script, which was penned by King as well as Will Berson and Keith Lucas. While I do praise King’s direction for the most part of the film, I do have to say that his style of taking in the story’s narrative is a bit perplexing and wonky at the same time. This is indeed apparent during the film’s first act, which starts out quite strong, but then starts to lose steam about halfway through. It’s hard to say how and when, but the latter half of the movie feels a bit lopsided. Perhaps is this more apparent because of King’s direction of making Judas and the Black Messiah more of character focus piece rather than a narrative driven one. In fact, much of the story’s background components are quite downplayed and aren’t followed through a whole lot. Thus, the script and direction of the film seems more focus on Hampton and O’Neal (as characters) and not so much on what they accomplish.

In fact, I was a bit disappointed that the movie didn’t delve deep enough into all the accomplishments and workings into what Hampton did. Yes, he’s very persuasive with his rhetoric, his words, and his bold stance of idealism for “the movement”, but King doesn’t offer much insight into what he actually did. The same can be said with O’Neal and how he played a part in all of this…. I just kind of wished that they added more sequences of seeing how he played more of instrumental role into Black Panther party. Yes, when know that he’s struggling with what’s he doing, but why did they trust him and what parts did he play to the group. Thus, there are chunks of plot where there is almost a “time skip” where the film jumps and feels like something is missing. This makes a lot of the film feel like a “gloss” surface in a few areas; barely scratching the surface as to what real happened and that’s a missed opportunity.

As a minor point of criticism, Judas and the Black Messiah does come off as a bit stale in some parts that’s due to the fact that there have been many feature films out there (most based on a true story / event) that have depicted racial injustice against African American that it almost has become a subgenre of its own by pure accident. That’s not to say that the story lacks meaning or buoyance to either Hampton or O’Neal’s stories, but doesn’t make the film have that enticing grip of a mixture of grit and substance that one would find in a Spike Lee film (kind of what like BlacKkKlansman was able to achieve). As mentioned, King does seem to hold back a bit and I’m not talking bloody violence, but there could been more grit to the movie; rendering Judas and the Black Messiah a bit undercooked in a few areas.

Of course, the film’s acting talent helps elevate those criticisms and (like I said above) give Judas and the Black Messiah a very character-driven piece, especially with the two main characters. Naturally, those roles are filled by actors Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal respectfully. Of the two, Kaluuya, known for his roles in Get Out, Black Panther, and Queen & Slim, has slowly been gaining momentum in his acting career, which is probably why he was chosen to play Fred Hampton in the movie. Of course, that was probably the best decision made in this particular, for Kaluuya is quite the skilled actor and knows how “sink his teeth” into the characters he portrays. This is case with his portrayal of Fred Hampton; creating a very magnetic man, who’s charm and ideal is quite infectious to those who comes into contact with and when he rallies people to his cause. Whatever you take away from this movie, Kaluuya is phenomenal as Hampton and I’m sure that Hampton family, who gave their blessings for this project, would be proud of the actor’s performance of Fred. All in all, Kaluuya is superb in the movie and he certainly deserve the nods and acclaims that won at the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Awards for portraying Fred Hampton with such fierce vigor and poise theatrical poise in this dynamic role.

Likewise, Stanfield, known for his roles in Selma, Sorry to Bother You, and The Photograph, does an equally impressive job in the role of O’Neal. While not as palpable within his authority skills and word usage as Kaluuya’s Hampton, Stanfield is quite adept in delving into a more subtle-like character; finding his portrayal of O’Neal to be downplayed, but still quite effective. The duality of the two personas that he has to portray in the movie of one being radical comrade in the Black Panther Party and the other being a struggle man who is caught between doing what is right and saving his own skin is quite the promising; finding Stanfield adept in giving those two very distinct characteristics in O’Neal is profound and enticing to watch. In short, Stanfield is solid in the movie and I personally think it is one of his best roles to date; creating a great and memorable role in Judas and the Black Messiah.

Of the supporting players in the movie, the one that stands out the most comes from actor Jesse Plemons, who plays Roy Mitchell, O’Neal’s FBI agent handler. Plemons, known for his roles in The Irishman, Game Night, and Battleship, knows how to deliver that uncanny sense of being a bit unnerved and awkward moment within his character through his demeanor and body language (mostly in his facial expressions). Thus, his portrayal of Mitchell is great and shows how he’s a little bit nervous as to what O’Neal or how his superiors will react or not react to what’s going on. To me, he was one of the more memorable side characters in the movie. Who fares a bit less is Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s girlfriend and mother of his child. Played by actress Dominique Fishback (Project Power and The Hate U Give), the character seems a bit off in the movie and whenever she’s on-screen, the movie sort of slow down and looses interest. That’s not to say that she irrelevant to the plot as Deborah shows a different side to Hampton (a more intimate one), but, compared to the struggles and triumphs that both Hampton and O’Neal, her storyline seems weak. That being said, Fishback does deliver a strong performance. Lastly, I thought that actor Martin Sheen (Badlands and The Departed) did a great job in playing J. Edgar Hoover. Heck, it took me awhile to figure out that it was Sheen playing him as the voice sounded familiar, but not the physical appearance. Plus, I like how King depicts Hoover in the movie; presenting the man as a vile man, who wants to pursue his own personal agenda of stamping out the Black Panther organization, including Fred Hampton.

The rest of the cast, including actor Ashton Sanders (Captive State and Moonlight) as Black Panther member Jimmy Palmer, actor Algee Smith (Detroit and Earth to Echo) as Black Panther member Jake Winters, actor Darrell Britt-Gibson (Barry and Keanu) as co-founder of the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago Bobby Rush, and Lil Rel Howery (Get Out and Uncle Drew) as undercover FBI agent Wayne, actress Dominque Thorne (If Beale Street Could Talk) as Black Panther member Judy Harmon, and Amari Cheatom (Django Unchained and Night Catches Us) as leader of the Crowns group Rod Collins, are dedicated to the film’s minor supporting players. Most of these characters are limited by their screen-time and nothing much beyond their initial setup, but the acting talents behind them are rather good and helps elevate beyond those limitation.

FINAL THOUGHTS


A saga of messiah leader and a turncoat betrayer in amongst the heated battle of the Black Panther movement and racial government officials in the movie Judas and the Black Messiah. Director Shaka King’s latest film takes a closer look into the lives of Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal; navigating through a series of events that lead the two men into on a collision course of life and death in amass of turbulence. While the movie does stumble in a few areas and can’t quite encompass all that King wants to project, the film still manages to overcome those criticism, with key points of King’s direction, great character dialogue moments, a poignant story to tell, great usage of the biblical terms (as seeing in the film’s title), a solid presentation, and great acting, especially from Kaluuya and Stanfield. Personally, I liked this movie. Though I wished certain aspects were further expanded upon and some of the film’s direction were different, I did enjoy the movie as I found to be quite informative on both Fred Hampton’s involvement in the Black Panther as a promising leader, who was betrayed by one of his own men (i.e., O’Neal). Plus, just to see Kaluuya’s performance as Hampton is amazing. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a solid “recommended” as it deserves a lot praise and acclaim that it has been receiving and will be (or rather is) quite insightful for viewers to watch and appreciate an almost “unsung” hero of the Black Panther movement and the man through his rise and fall. In the end, while some might grumble over the oversaturation of black stories in the recent years of cinematic storytelling, Judas and the Black Messiah further stipulates the idea that there is more narratives of lesser known yet impactful stories of African American individuals fighting against racial injustice that need and deserve to be heard.

3.8 Out of 5 (Recommended)

 

Released On: February 12th, 2021
Reviewed On: March 16th, 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah  is 126 minutes long and is rated R for violence and persuasive language