Judas and the Black Messiah Review – Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield Deliver Two Revolutionary Performances In Shaka King’s Take On the Assassination of Fred Hampton

Judas and the Black Messiah Review – Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield Deliver Two Revolutionary Performances In Shaka King’s Take On the Assassination of Fred Hampton

Read Time:9 Minutes, 9 Seconds

DISCLAIMER: I originally saw Judas and the Black Messiah at Sundance Film Festival 2021, before its theatrical and HBO Max release date on February 12th.

Growing up as a White man in the Midwest of America, I was never told about Fred Hampton, The Black Panthers, and grew up with the general idea that the civil rights movement in the 1960s was bad, but that my government were the good guys.

As even just the past year can attest to, none of that was the case. Black men and women get unjustly incarcerated every day for walking down the streets of their own neighborhood, or even worse, die as a result of police brutality.

I say this to highlight that my review of Judas and the Black Messiah is going to be from that point of view and that it should be a crime that schools are not teaching their students the real history of The United States and their role in perpetuating racism.

Director Shaka King presents Judas and the Black Messiah as this blend of documentary, narrative biopic, and Biblical allegory. What I mean by this is while we do get the facts of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, the film has this feel of 1970s crime drama and treats the cast as having this Twelve Apostles element. This conscience choice in direction gives the film this multi-layered texture, bringing the viewer into both the world of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers while injecting both worlds with a sense of this metaphorical ticking time bomb that neither party is quite sure is even there, they just know something is going to happen.

All rights belong to Warner Bros. Pictures, WB Studio Enterprises, and Warner Bros. Entertainment

WARNING: If you have not seen Judas and the Black Messiah or are not familiar with the story of Fred Hampton, the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, or William O’Neil, be advised that there are light spoilers (mostly revolving around the characters) ahead.

This ticking time bomb comes in the form of William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), who after taking a plea deal offered by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons) after a carjacking gone wrong is tasked with infiltrating the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, and to report back to Special Agent Mitchell about the progress Fred Hampton is making.

LaKeith Stanfield’s acting here is what you would get if you plucked his character from Sorry to Bother You (which you should watch if you haven’t) and cranked that up to eleven. William O’Neil is a person that requires a balance of a love of danger and the constant paranoia of being found out. Stanfield does to great effect here in the film’s opening, and closing acts, but I have to admit that in the two times I’ve seen the film, it doesn’t feel like Stanfield is given much to do.

Daniel Kaluuya, however, is given so much to do. Not only does he have to sell the entire conceit of who a revolutionary is, but he has to also ground the ideals of Fred Hampton to those who don’t know his name. That’s a lot for one actor to do, but Kaluuya does it brilliantly. Anytime he appears on the screen, I felt excited to hear what he said or how he reacted to something. That sounds odd to say, but Kaluuya truly embodies what I would imagine a revolutionary would be like in real life. He gives these grandiose speeches that inspire people of all races and creeds to go out and change their communities for the better.

Dominque Fishback’s Deborah Johnson is one of those people. She is inspired by Hampton’s speech at Wright Junior College (now renamed Wilbur Wright College) enough to become Fred Hampton’s speechwriter. I feel the way Fishback plays Deborah is a very meek performance but powerful at the same time. This is what allows Fishback to hold her own in the conversations she has with Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton in their many one-on-one conversations.

Through the relationship the two eventually share, Deborah is able to expose the vulnerable side to Fred Hampton and gives the film the opportunity to showcase Black love.

Black love is relatively new (from my point of view), at least in big-budget films such as this one. As far as I know, the concept of Black love is not as simple as those two words. Instead, it’s this act of reclamation of your family lineage, a redefinition of what makes a relationship a success or a failure (this article by the site Sex Positive is a good one), and getting to know your partner on a profoundly emotional level so that you can work things out no matter what that means.

Jesse Plemons’s Special Agent Roy Mitchell is an interesting case study of doublespeak. The way Plemons plays Mitchell is, well, Plemons doing the same thing Plemons usually does. He’s not a villain or even a bad guy. He’s something worse. Here, he plays a passive-aggressive FBI agent. He doesn’t care about the crime you committed; he cares about why you committed the crime and if your skillset is of use to him. The thing is, though, this isn’t immediately clear. Throughout the film, he genuinely seems to care about how Bill is doing every time they meet.

Martin Sheen’s J. Edgar Hoover, however, has other plans for Bill. Hoover is the most direct analog to Hampton has. Any time Hampton makes a move, you can be sure that Hoover is right there to ensure that Hampton’s revolution is undermined. I’m not sure Sheen was the best choice to play J. Edgar Hoover, however. The attempts to make Sheen look like J. Edgar Hoover just don’t work, and it doesn’t help that Sheen’s acting here is so black and white. I get why you need someone like Sheen for this role, but his acting feels so stale to the point of distraction.

The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, whom you may know from such films such as Widows, Oldboy (2013), Shame, Hunger, or 12 Years A Slave, is simply magnificent. As you can see in the images above, Bobbitt’s shots seem to focus on a feeling rather than a single subject. This shift away does a lot to communicate how Fred Hampton is able to inspire people, as well as the inner intentions of everyone on screen. Beyond that, I feel like the choice to shoot hectic moments handheld makes the film feel much more like a documentary than viewers may be expecting, given those choices in cinematography are normally showcased in small-budget films.

Below the surface, the screenplay by Will Berson, Shaka King & The Lucas Bros is much more nuanced than one may notice.

Primarily, the film’s soul rests in the Biblical allegory of a “Judas” and a “Black Messiah”. Anyone who even has even a passing notion of how that story went in The Bible can immediately latch onto this allegory. There is a Judas and there is a Messiah figure, and I think that this was the best way for Shaka King to tell the story he wanted to tell. So much of Fred Hampton’s story is embedded in the sorrow & anger of his assassination that I don’t think there’s any other way to approach a film like this.

Another thing that I think the film does will to not ignore is the place government (local and federal) played in the ultimate assassination of Fred Hampton. Unlike the film Detroit (which I recommend you all see), the film doesn’t paint the FBI agents or Illinois police officers as pure racists (although there are moments where the case could be made for individual people), but instead chooses to paint these people as people as part of a bigger system trying to keep the status quo in 1960s America. The particular highlight of the screenplay in this regard is a scene where J. Edgar Hoover is questioning Special Agent Roy Mitchell, where it becomes clear to both parties that this not just about Fred Hampton, but the entire civil rights movement. For this scene alone, I recommend seeking this film out.

At the center of it all is LaKeith Stanfield’s William O’Neil. What I like about the writing here is that he truly goes on multiple arcs throughout the film. O’Neil is never just one thing. He’s dozens of things in one. He can be a hustler one moment and scared as a mouse in the other. This duality and flexibility of O’Neil (at least how he’s presented in the film) gives the audience someone to go on a journey with, a deeply emotional one.

Another thing I loved is the score. The score feels like something you’d listen to late on a Friday night and relax to after a long week of work, with these jazzy tones in the background that bring this crime drama feel to the film and some thumpy undertones when something is amiss. That combined with “Fight for You” by H.E.R. makes it something that, even away from the film, I’d find myself listening to on a regular basis.

The editing within the film is even better. Instead of being super-stylized or trying to make any kind of statement, the editing serves the purpose of making sure the viewer is never comfortable in any situation. There’s this sense that something is amiss and that the viewer never has enough space to breathe before something big happens.

I think that Judas and the Black Messiah is one of those films that truly has it all. The film’s direction never feels heavy-handed with its racial politics, the screenplay’s approach of comparing the betrayal of Fred Hampton to Judas’s and the institution that led Bill O’Neil to such a bitter betrayal, the cast completely sells the idea of two ideals clashing behind closed doors, the score, the cinematography feels like a documentary, and the editing heightens the viewer’s senses so that they are never comfortable.

I think that Judas and the Black Messiah is one of those films that truly has it all. The film’s direction never feels heavy-handed with its racial politics, the screenplay’s approach of comparing the betrayal of Fred Hampton to Judas’s and the institution that led Bill O’Neil to such a bitter betrayal, the cast completely sells the idea of two ideals clashing behind closed doors, the score, the cinematography feels like a documentary, and the editing heightens the viewer’s senses so that they are never comfortable.

You can watch Judas and the Black Messiah at your local theater

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Thanks to Thomas Stoneham-Judge from Movies For Reel for supporting Austin B Media! He’s doing some great work at SXSW right now, too, so check that out!

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