By Staff Writer Varun Upadhyay
Director Shaka King’s R-rated Judas and the Black Messiah is an intense yet entertaining historical drama based on true events of the Civil Rights Movement. While there are a few flaws in its storytelling, the film incorporates a perfect combination of thrilling suspense, stellar acting, and impactful messages on racial injustice, which still resonates with today’s political climate and makes for a thought-provoking cinematic marvel.
The movie is set in late 1960s Chicago and follows Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the leader of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter as he strives to make radical progress towards Black civil rights and racial equality. However, when petty thief William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught stealing cars, he accepts a deal with the FBI to infiltrate and betray the radical Black activist group, working as an informant for Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) in exchange for money and having his criminal charges dropped.
Judas and the Black Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as the charismatic and confident Fred Hampton.
While King does his best job at documenting this radical historical event, the film’s greatest flaw stems from the massive amount of information the plot attempts to cover. The storyline moves relatively quickly, forgoing the character development of historically important political activists such as Jake Winters (Algee Smith) and Bobby Rush (Darrell Britt-Gibson), in exchange for covering more of O’Neal’s story. As such, the film’s emotional impact is consequently blunted due to the difficulty in forming an attachment to some of the characters. Despite the fast-paced nature of the movie, however, King is still able to develop an enthralling film. He expertly recreates the sickeningly tense, adrenaline-fueled moments of O’Neal’s betrayals — the conniving informant ingeniously weaseling his way out of potential discovery on numerous occasions is incredibly stressful yet thrilling to see. To add to the realistic nature of the film, King also creatively incorporates video clips of O’Neal’s real-life interview with PBS from the documentary TV series, Eyes on the Prize, after critical events throughout the movie. While unsettling to watch, viewers may get a greater look into the psychological effects these events had on O’Neal — these segments help the audience imagine the burden that comes with shouldering the responsibility of countless deaths at a young age.
In Eyes on the Prize, a PBS documentary about the Civil Rights Movement from 1952 to 1965, William O’Neal spoke about his role as an FBI informant.
The immersive experience King shapes from the suspenseful storyline is also further elevated by the stellar acting from the cast, most notably with lead stars Stanfield and Kaluuya.
Stanfield’s attention to detail with his character is nothing short of extraordinary. He does an impeccable job at depicting the antihero in O’Neal, perfectly encapsulating the nuances and behavior that comes with the death of one’s morals for the monetary, selfish gains — by the end of the movie, it is almost saddening to see how even simple movements, such as picking up an envelope, are completely changed from steady and confident to jittery and anxious. Kaluuya’s realistic depiction of Hampton also deserves tremendous applause. Known for his riveting, poetic speeches, Hampton’s electrifying persona is successfully channeled through Kaluuya, whose heroic confidence on screen is incredibly entertaining to see — his hair-raising “I am a Revolutionary” speech after being released from prison is especially impactful and energizing, with his obvious passion adding to the immersive nature of the movie.
In addition to the wonderful acting and enjoyable plot, King brings a unique, informative perspective to the Black Panther Party which is intriguing to see. While Hampton and the rest of the party are no stranger to resorting to violence for self-defense, it is uplifting to see the film also highlighting the unspoken positives the organization was able to bring. By showing how the Illinois chapter created accessible medical care for Black residents and provided free meals for 3,000 children a week, it is heartening to see King fighting back against America’s dominating view of the Black Panther Party, which overshadows their emphasis on community activism with an overexaggerated reliance on violence. Throughout the film, King also does an exceptional job at illuminating the government’s continued suppression of Black freedom movements through scenes of gross police brutality and white supremacy. Though upsetting to watch, these brutally honest moments serve as powerful criticisms on the immorality of such horrendous actions and ideas, which are still present in parts of today’s society. It is inspiring to see how the larger scope of the film not only voices support for current civil rights movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement but also serves as a necessary call to action to end these racial injustices.
Despite its few flaws in the storyline’s pacing, Judas and the Black Messiah is a phenomenal film. King expertly pieces together an intense historical thriller with an incredible cast to provide significant insights and meaningful messages on racial injustices, which ultimately makes for an incredibly impactful cinematic masterpiece.
Judas and the Black Messiah is now available to stream on HBO Max.