After the politically charged events of last summer, Hollywood has been ramping up stories that highlight that the struggle for racial equality and criminal justice reform didn’t begin with George Floyd, or Brianna Taylor, or even Trayvon Martin. It’s a struggle that people of color have been fighting for decades, and the battlefield has never been fair. In the new film Judas and the Black Messiah, in select theaters and HBO Max starting this weekend, the story of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton comes into the light, and it is a powerful reminder that this fight is not new, nor is it ending any time soon.
Judas and the Black Messiah stars LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, a small time car thief who gets tapped by J. Edgar Hoover’s (Martin Sheen) FBI and a handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), to infiltrate the Chicago Black Panther Party to spy on the party’s charismatic chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Bill is paid handsomely for his services by the U.S. government, so his allegiance is to the green, not the Black. That conflict sits at the heart of the story.
Bill works his way up the ladder, shrugging off calls that he’s a rat, as Hampton successfully creates a rainbow coalition of oppressed people, rival gangs, and social organizations. The threat that Bill is under after getting so deep is on all sides, and he wants to cut and run, as the tasks given to him by his handler become deeper and more involved. This all comes to a violent head in the third act when Bill’s work pays off, and lives are changed forever.
Director Shaka King, who also co-wrote the script with Will Berson, juggles the conflict that Bill O’Neal is going through with the good (and bad) that Fred Hampton was doing for the poor and marginalized in Chicago. King never paints Hampton as a saint, but he does highlight just how impossible the struggle was in 1970, and he mirrors that to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. It’s an acrobatic act of filmmaking to reflect 50 years of historical points back at each other without coming off as preachy and one-sided, and King sticks the landing.
Judas and the Black Messiah is carried on the backs of its amazing cast, with both Stanfield and Kaluuya pushing each other to new and greater heights. Kaluuya, in particular, explodes on-screen, sucking the oxygen out of every scene that he’s in. He just permeates the power and charisma that Hampton had, and some of his speeches got me, a 47-year-old white guy, believing in the true power of the people.
Both Stanfield and Kaluuya, who first starred together in Jordan Peele’s star-making Get Out, have taken their craft to new and exciting heights. As a critic, I’m always looking for new and exciting voices, and these men continue to deliver in each and every role they take on. We’re to the point now that seeing either actor’s name in the credits of a film tells me all I need to know, and that I’m in for something special.
Judas and the Black Messiah offers a seldom overlooked perspective and it will make you angry — and it should. Director King pushes the right buttons, and delivers a film that looks, sounds, and feels as if it were made in the 1970s. It’s a modern throwback with a timely message that matters at this very moment to millions of people in this country. This is a film that will stick with you, reminding you that George Floyd wasn’t the beginning or the end of the struggle, just another in a very long line of chapters in a book that maybe, one day, we will all see closed for good.
Judas and the Black Messiah is rated R and will be in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max starting on February 12. All images courtesy of Warner Bros.
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