‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Review

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There hasn’t been many films that have displayed the actions of the notorious Black Panther Party since their inception in the late 1960s, but Judas and the Black Messiah hopes to break that mold to showcase this movement. Directed by debutante filmmaker Shaka King, the film utilizes the broad talents of its two main leads Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield.

The film focuses on Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) of the Illinois chapter and his involvement in the civil rights movement during that time. The story also puts a spotlight on a petty car thief named William O’Neal (Stanfield), who gets hired by the FBI as an informant to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in order to take down Hampton. What drives the force of this movie is the determination of these two men on different sides of the law trying to do what’s right for their people. As Hampton puts his energy into helping the Black community gain their equality through sheer force, the journey also sees William seeing how Hampton’s methods are as he slowly begins to become supportive of his leader even though he has to take him down in order to survive his predicament with the FBI.

Judas and the Black Messiah has many parallels with the story of Jesus and the sudden betrayal of his follower Judas. The comparisons work for a story like this that still shows some resonance to what our society faces today. Shaka King and Will Berson’s powerful screenplay gives enough of a draw to showcase the struggles that Hampton faces as a leader and knows the burden that he carries to help his fellow compatriots to build a better America for themselves. The script brings out the best in Kaluuya as he digs deep into the mind of Hampton as he goes on his rallies as the face of his local chapter while also displaying his vulnerabilities as a human being. Stanfield’s portrayal of William brings out the complexities of a man playing both sides as he slowly comes to the realization that what Hampton is doing isn’t any different than what other civil rights leaders has done despite their methods.

Some other standouts from the cast include Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s love interest Deborah Johnson, whose real-life counterpart goes by Akua Njeri. She and her son Fred Hampton, Jr gave their blessing to the film after it was greenlit. Fishback manages to portray Johnson as an independent woman who stood by the ideals of Hampton and foresees the eventual danger that Hampton has put on himself as he leads his people to gaining equality. Algee Smith also has a number of scenes that have shown the brutality of the police force as they hunker down on the Black Panther Party. Jesse Plemons continues to show his acting chops playing FBI agent Roy Mitchell who recruits William to infiltrate the party as he pushes him to get the info he needs to help the FBI take downHampton.

 It has been 51years since the death of Hampton, where his name has since been less prominent as there has been little details on his life beyond the events that led to his death. There have been many attempts to bring his story to the big screen, and we finally get to see Hampton’s life unfold thanks to the brilliant direction of Shaka King. The film uses an unusual approach to tackle his life by using his betrayer William as a catalyst to the story as we experience the treachery and guilt he feels as it documents Hampton’s position in the Civil Rights movement.The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt has helped the film transforms Ohio into the1960s and sees how its not so different than what is going on with the Black community now with law enforcement. Hampton’s big speech also brings some powerful shots of Kaluuya, Lakeith, and Fishback in their places as we see different types of emotions expressed on the screen.

As a whole, Judas and the Black Messiah continues the trend of bringing out the parallels of the Civil Rights era to the present showcasing the message that still resonates with us today. Both Kaluuya and Lakeith bring out their A-game with some power house performances that displays how great these two can be on any screen. If not for the story, then the film would be a must-watch just to see these two actors in their element. The movie marks a milestone for Black representation both behind and in front of the camera. Even though the story takes place half a century ago, the film will likely bring out some resonance to the events that are impacting us now.

Judas and the Black Messiah releases in theaters and will stream on HBO Max on February 12.
Movie Reviewed by TANTV Entertainment Journalist, Mufsin Mahbub. Follow him on Twitter @MufsinM.

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