REVIEW: Judas and the Black Messiah [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 126 minutes
    Release Date: February 12th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
    Director(s): Shaka King
    Writer(s): Will Berson & Shaka King / Will Berson & Shaka King and Kenneth Lucas & Keith Lucas (story)

Anywhere there’s people, there’s power.

Despite top billing and the majority of media focus, Daniel Kaluuya is not the star of Judas and the Black Messiah. As the title of Shaka King‘s film alludes, his Messiah in the form of Fred Hampton is secondary as the angel on Bill O’Neal’s (LaKeith Stanfield) shoulder. It’s his Judas that holds our attention, caught between preserving his people and preserving himself while participating in the civil rights movement after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Ask him before he got dragged into this fight (the devil on his other shoulder in Jesse Plemons‘ FBI Agent Roy Mitchell does exactly that) and O’Neal would tell you that he couldn’t be bothered with the desperate plight of others when his was already so dire.

That’s why Mitchell puts his hooks in him. He sees a man out for number one who’s willing to do anything to stay out of jail. And with five years hanging around O’Neal’s neck by doing nothing, attending a few Black Panther meetings while cozying up to its chairman seemed an easy choice to make. The reason their subsequent relationship becomes so intriguing is thus that O’Neal eventually listens to Hampton’s words. He realizes that no matter how bad things might be or how some might equate violence at the Party’s hands with that of the Ku Klux Klan, this man putting everything on the line to make a difference was real. That’s why Nixon and Hoover (Martin Sheen) feared Hampton so vehemently. He was uniting without bloodshed.

To tell Bill O’Neal and Fred Hampton’s combined story is therefore more complex than what generic good versus evil plots usually manifest. We need to be able to empathize with the former even as his actions become transparently complicit to the eventual assassination of the latter. With that complexity, however, also comes increased artistic appeal—so it’s no surprise that dueling scripts were ultimately shopped around Hollywood at the same time. That Will Berson‘s version would prove the winner (with director King attached to help smooth it out alongside Hampton’s widow and son’s first-hand knowledge as consultants) and yet still invited Kenneth and Keith Lucas to lend the insight they cultivated while writing their own proves how camaraderie in the pursuit of truth can still trump capitalistic gains.

And that’s the struggle waged on-screen. Hampton and his Rainbow Coalition strives to get everyone that’s being persecuted and impoverished by the actions of the rich together to spark a revolution against that common oppressor. He’s getting gangs to join him. He’s getting the descendants of white sharecroppers still flying the Confederate flag to join him. Fred Hampton is quite literally positioning himself as Chicago’s Jesus Christ with programs providing food to children and ambitions to open a medical clinic and the United States government label him a terrorist for his trouble before inciting the sort of violence that demands the kind of response that will bolster those claims within the public consciousness. Rather than see his humanity as a push to find their own, Hoover cracks down.

Berson and company leave that in the background, though, because we know its impact. Why talk about Hoover’s underhanded tactics again when we can take a front row seat to how those tactics cause internal discord within the Party instead? This side of the tale is about O’Neal’s guilt and regret. It’s about him falling prey to Mitchell’s kindness and motivation via steak dinners and manufactured friendship before letting all pretense dissolve when necessary to remind him he never had a choice. Do the little things they ask in return for freedom and smile. Refuse to do big things thinking you’ve already repaid your debt and discover that prison may have been the better choice. Suddenly the right thing risks hurting more people than continuing to do wrong.

So while Kaluuya is a powerhouse and deserving of what should be his second Oscar nomination (this time as supporting), you cannot overlook the work Stanfield is doing while juggling these two fronts. His anxiety when O’Neal hears about another chapter killing an informant in their midst oozes out as he forces himself to laugh and go on about how he would have handled it—overcompensating for the fact he’s more likely to be the one tossed in the river. How he reacts to the consequences of what he’s telling the FBI by entrenching himself further to work towards Hampton’s mission despite being paid to undermine it shows why that “Judas” tag is so apt and why it stayed with him to eventually cause his demise.

This betrayal hurts O’Neal that much more because he didn’t volunteer to take down someone he disliked or disagreed with. He was entrapped into a situation that ate away at his soul to the point where survival became his only means of excusing his deeds. To watch this character’s rise within Hampton’s ranks is to see a man who didn’t believe the talk on the street. This is a car thief who impersonates federal agents to scare victims into doing what he says—a grifter who probably (and some might say rightly) believes everyone else is a grifter too. So when he meets Fred and discovers the opposite is true, his excuses all fade away. No longer conning a con man, he’s actively destroying a good man instead.

I won’t deny that the journey gets a bit muddled along the way, though. Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s soon-to-be girlfriend (Deborah Johnson) is fantastic and both Ashton Sanders (Jimmy Palmer) and Algee Smith (Jake Winters) add crucial emotion insofar as Fred’s mission and O’Neal’s allegiance is concerned, but they do distract from the fact that this is Bill’s story. I wonder then if things might have been stronger if he truly became the sole focal point without constantly pushing Hampton back into the spotlight as though he’s on even-footing narratively speaking. O’Neal is so obviously our lead that King even lets Plemons’ Mitchell have a crisis of faith that inevitably goes nowhere (causing him to go from two-dimensional to one) because that extra time becomes Fred’s.

On the flip side, reversing course may have rendered Hampton less electric and thus less powerful where it comes to making O’Neal question his actions. Perhaps it’s only because we spend this much time with Fred that we can understand why a man with no interest in the movement could be persuaded by him to become a trusted lieutenant despite actually being the least trustworthy person present. The messiness of the storytelling is thus a key factor in allowing the messiness of O’Neal’s situation to rise to the surface. The more Hampton becomes a hero and Mitchell a villain, the more sweat and uncertainty arrives on Bill’s brow. That he continues doing what he’s told anyway proves our collective freedom remains in a corrupt authority’s hands.

[1] © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved Photo Credit: Glen Wilson Caption: (L-r) DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON as Bobby Rush, DANIEL KALUUYA as Chairman Fred Hampton and LAKEITH STANFIELD as Bill O’Neal in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) JESSE PLEMONS as Roy Mitchell and LAKEITH STANFIELD as Bill O’Neal in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: DOMINIQUE FISHBACK as Deborah Johnson in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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