By Richard Chachowski
There are many words one could use to describe director Shaka King’s new film “Judas and the Black Messiah” — amazing, remarkable, spectacular. Basically, you could look in a thesaurus and look under the word “excellent,” to be able to justifiably apply any of its synonyms to “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The movie is that good. The film’s performances are raw, the themes it explores are incredibly poignant and timely in today’s age, and it offers a unique biographical look into the life of a largely unknown activist of the Black Power movement that emerged in America following the civil rights movement.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” most prominently focuses on the story of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969, wonderfully played by Daniel Kaluuya.
An outspoken advocate for revolutionary socialism and self sufficiency without the aid of the government, Hampton seeks to form free institutions for Black citizens (including Hampton’s hope to one day build breakfast programs, schools and hospitals for individuals in need of aid).
After his attempt to unite underrepresented individuals with his formation of the Rainbow Coalition — a group made up of Black activists, pro-Latino groups and white leftist Southerners — Hampton soon gains the attention of the FBI. To learn more about Hampton and his operations, the FBI recruits amateur car thief, Bill O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield, to act as an informant within Hampton’s group.
There’s no shortage of great things in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The soundtrack, which weaves in a lot of modern day hits from artists such as Jay Z, Nas, H.E.R., fits the tone of the film well without seeming at all out of place for a movie that takes place in the ‘60s. The topics it focuses on, including systemic racism and police brutality, are relevant in today’s culture. The script is air tight, and the plot always seems to be moving at a rapid pace with no dull moments or wasted scenes. Above all else, though, it’s the acting in “Judas and the Black Messiah” that stands out the most, with the cast — especially star Daniel Kaluuya — delivering exceptional performances in this film.
As Hampton, Kaluuya gives a mesmerizing, scene-stealing rendition of a man of the people who has already accepted his inevitable martyrdom as a result of his beliefs. At one point in the film, a leader of a Black civil rights group that acts as a rival of sorts to the BPP rhetorically asks Hampton, “What happened to Martin [Luther King, Jr.] and Malcolm [X]?” to which Hampton cooly responds, “Same thing that’s gonna happen to all of us.” It’s a line that Kaluuya delivers with chilling calmness and authenticity to the point where you truly believe “This is a man willing to die for his ideals.” Kaluuya delivers a tremendous performance in this film, managing to make Hampton appear as a fully fleshed-out individual while also bringing a larger-than-life presence through scenes depicting Hampton giving one of his impassioned, from-the-heart speeches to his followers.
Remarkable as it is, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is not without some faults. As great an actor as Lakeith Stanfield is, his portrayal of O’Neal doesn’t really start to shine until halfway through the film, and somewhat dims in comparison to the on-screen presence Kaluuya commands. At a two-hour run time, the film is not excessively long or short, but it does feel like it could be longer with more time spent on Stanfield’s O’Neal and the emotions he’s going through as he reports Hampton’s actions to the FBI.
Director Shaka King does include some scenes depicting the paranoia and constant fear O’Neal is feeling as an informant, and we do feel the injustice O’Neal faces at essentially being blackmailed by the FBI to continue spying on the BPP. But there definitely could’ve been scenes added depicting O’Neal’s emotional struggle and what else he felt in the last half of the film besides just fear — does he feel any guilt, sadness, shame, remorse? — to give more nuance to O’Neal and help audiences understand him a bit more.
Like most Hollywood movies, as well, fact is often better than fiction, and “Judas and the Black Messiah” is no exception. Compared to the real-life individuals involved in the story, the two main leads are quite a few years older than their counterparts, with Hampton being 21 years old and O’Neal being only 17 at the time of the film’s events in 1969. However, casting actors that are far older or far younger than their on-screen roles is not an altogether new cinematic practice, and if that means casting the 31-year-old Kaluuya as Hampton and getting one of the best performances of Kaluuya’s career, then I’m definitely willing to ignore a few slight casting discrepancies for the sake of an awesome interpretation with Kaluuya’s Hampton.
The film also falls flat in a few other places. There is a moment halfway through the film where Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent played by Jesse Plemons who recruits O’Neal as an informant, faces an ethical issue from his superiors where his character seemingly starts to realize the FBI isn’t as moral as he once thought. It’s a case of much-needed development for Mitchell, who has been played as the straight-laced authority figure, and shows him more as a human being than just the film’s personification of the nefarious FBI. However, in the following scenes where Mitchell is featured, this moral lapse in Mitchell seems to go unnoticed, and rather than being an agent questioning some of the more problematic strategies the FBI uses against the BBP, he once again all-too-willingly continues blackmailing O’Neal and following orders without any question.
Faults aside, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is both a thrilling and enlightening film that focuses on an not altogether very well-known hero of the Black Power movement. The story explores the timely themes of race and representation in America during the late ‘60s, and takes a stand against an opppressive, bigoted regime bent on suppressing independent voices from speaking out against the system.