What would you tell your son about what you did then?” This question is asked of LaKeith Stanfield’s William O’Neal in the opening scene of Shaka King’s newest film ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ but it could just as easily be directed at the audience, asked to reflect on what role we’ve all played in our current moment in history. 

Compared to most other award-contending films following major civil rights icons, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is less of a passive history lesson than a direct confrontation of a story and images many audiences are not especially familiar with, to provoke deeper questions and considerations of how much the root causes of these issues have changed since the course of events depicted in the film, and what still needs to be done. Director Shaka King constructs a suspenseful film around these relatively complicated ideas more like an action thriller, which helps move along the over two-hour running time.

Stanfield’s William O’Neal starts the film getting arrested by stealing a car having performed as an FBI agent with a fake badge (saying that a badge is scarier than a gun to his targets). An actual FBI agent, Roy Martin Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons), recruits O’Neal to put his impersonation skills for the FBI’s use, or else risk significant jail time for his established crimes. He’s tasked with infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, chaired by the charismatic Fred Hampton played by a fiery Daniel Kaluuya

Kaluuya embodies Hampton’s mythical gait, demanding as much attention in his intimate moments connecting with any other Black Panther comrade one-on-one as he is in his booming oratories to the crowds he inspires, thanks to Kaluuya’s command of Hampton’s rapid-fire erudite monologues in his distinctive cadence. His magnetism has the small downside of making his absence felt in long stretches throughout the rest of the film, especially while he’s incarcerated. But there is much of interest in LaKeith Stanfield’s conflicted and contradictory performance as William O’Neal, who finds himself taken by Hampton’s showmanship and message, even as he’s forced consistently to betray Hampton to the FBI to avoid jail time himself — though he’s rewarded handsomely at the same time in cash, fancy meals, and a new car. 

The spark that really makes Judas and the Black Messiah come to life, however, is an unmistakable sense of urgency in showing just what Black Panthers like Hampton fought and died for, those are battles that still need to be fought today. That much of what happened in our past has carried on to the present, as much as many among us had been lulled into complacency since then. The film would make an excellent double-feature with, among many films, Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI documentary released just last year for important context of Hoover’s FBI surveillance of most major civil rights leaders. Shaka King (with producer Ryan Coogler) has mounted a handsome monument of a film to Fred Hampton that still speaks to a deeper moment transcending Hampton’s time alone, and will likely remain a definitive text on this subject for at least a generation.   

Rating: 4 out of 5.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is available to watch on HBO Max

Review – ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Reviewed on HBO Max, February 12, 2021, Rating: R. Running Time: 126 min.

PRODUCTION: (USA) A HBO Max release of a Bron Creative, MACRO, Participant production. Producers: Ryan Coogler (p.g.a.), Charles D. King (p.g.a.), Shaka King (p.g.a.). Executive producers: Jason Cloth, Zinzi Coogler, Ted Gidlow, Aaron L. Gilbert, Poppy Hanks, Anikah McLaren, Ravi D. Mehta, Sev Ohanian, Kim Roth, Jeff Skoll.

CREW: Director: Shaka King. Screenplay: Will Berson, Shaka King. Story: Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas. Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt. Editing: Kristan Sprague. Music: Craig Harris, Mark Isham.

CAST: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom.

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