“Judas and the Black Messiah” Movie Review


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     You have to respect a filmmaker who dares tackle a subject as controversial as race, given the divisive political climate in our country and the likelihood that half of the filmgoing population will almost certainly react negatively, if they even bother watching at all.  And making a film telling the story of the rise and subsequent death of Fred Hampton, the fiery leader of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, cements controversy simply by hearing the title alone.  But with “Judas and the Black Messiah”, director Shaka King has not only made an important film from a historical point of view, but also one that parallels current events with a dangerous accuracy.  One would hope this type of entertainment is consumed with the understanding that we as a society have progressed well beyond the events depicted in the story, but many will likely disagree with that notion and amp themselves up in a manner that does no one any good.

     Told from the perspective of those within the Black Panther Party, rather than including the rational and key decision making of the law enforcement entities ever present in the film, screen writer Wil Berson collaborates with King on a script that sets out to ensure the audience understands who Hampton was, what he stood for, and why.  Thus meaning the law enforcement and government angles are left with a few short meetings amongst the highest ranking members of the FBI and a very general overview as to why they saw Hampton and his fledgling group as a threat to the country.  In the simplist of terms, it was to say that Communism was not popular at the time.  But then again, nothing is ever simple.

     Played with the kind of power and raw emotion few actors are capable of by Daniel Kaluuya, Hampton is portrayed as a uniter of sorts.  Hailing from the south side of Chicago, his group, who adopts a similar style of militant discipline as the armed forces, preaches an unapologetic message of socialism, teaching its members through classroom instruction the finer points of Marxism and its advantages as it pertains to the advancement of the black community and all poor communities in general.  Hampton seeks to ensure rival gangs stand down against one another and come together as a singular force for their cause, which centers primarily around the eradication of “pigs” (the police) from their neighborhoods.  

     Now lets not pretend the reasons behind this were not well earned by several members of the Chicago Police Department, some of which is depicted throughout the story.  But Hampton’s mantra has him speaking passionatley and forcefully in front of large groups, both black and white, encouraging them to kill police, which is something no one should ever get behind, much less act on.  And that’s where history can not objectively compare Hampton to any of the prominent Civil Rights activists like Martin Luther King, whose message was that of love and peace.  Hampton’s rhetoric is likely why he became the top target of both the FBI and local law enforcement, the story of which is the central focus of the film.

     Early on, we meet Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a Chicago street hustler whose MO sees him impersonating an undercover police officer to boost cars from unsuspecting neighborhood gangsters.  When one of his capers goes wrong, he finds himself in police custody and looking at five plus years in prison.  That is until local FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), acting on orders as high as the agency’s director, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), corners O’Neal in an interrogation room and gives him an offer he can’t refuse.  Infiltrate the Black Panther Party with the goal of gaining the trust of Hampton himself and feed the FBI real time intelligence in exchange for the charges being dropped.

     And so the story moves forward, seeing O’Neal do just that, ultimately ascending to the position of being Hampton’s top security man and delivering to Mitchell a regular diet of insider information that brings law enforcement closer to taking down the person and group they view as the most considerable threat to the democracy of the nation.  Of course, which side of the aisle you currently reside will likely determine how you see these events from a right and wrong perspective.  During the course of his tenure, Hampton was arrested for assaulting an ice cream truck guy and stealing $71.00 worth of goods of which he then gave to kids on the streets.  He was convicted and sentenced to five years for the crime, with the depiction here insinuating the sentence handed down was purposely trumped up by the government, but we never get the actual details as to the assault.  What exactly did he do to the ice cream truck driver?  Aside from that incident, we never see Hampton commit violent acts, but we do hear him incite his followers to kill police which solves nothing and only exacerbates an already tenuous scenario.

     The performances in “Judas and the Black Messiah” are solid across the board, all led by Kaluuya’s ferocious and Oscar worthy turn as Hampton, blending a notable compassion and caring for those he leads, while pushing the boundaries of activism with a pulse pounding display of rage and anger.  All of which culminates in a tragic sequence of events that ultimately led to his untimely death at just 21 years of age.  And given the lead up to that fateful night, King would’ve been wise to allow for a scene showing the preparation for the raid by law enforcement, rather than staging the entire sequence only from the perspective of those inside Hampton’s apartment.  Doing so may have brought further insight as to the true intentions of the cops beyond what we see here as an outright and blatant execution.  There has to be more to the story right?  GRADE: B+