2020 was the year when Black Lives Matter really saw the light of the day. A revolution that has been simmering under the surface since 2013 returned to mainstream media after the George Floyd Protests sparked a route for rethinking about police brutality in the USA. The global attention to the revolution was another instance of how relevant and pressing the issues are even today. Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” is about one such revolution and a revolutionary whose name cannot be killed off from the history books. King paints his story with electrifying exuberance and urgency that puts this retelling of the Black Panthers right on top with other great ones about the community in a siege.
We all know what eventually happened to Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Serving as the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton played an instrumental role as an activist who fought for socialistic change in the way black people were treated by the US police and governmental agencies under J. Edgar Hoover’s authority. Shaka King’s film uses a dynamic narrative device that parallelly traverses the lives of Hampton and William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) – a former car thief turned FBI informant.
Also in the mix is FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemon) who plays O’Neal as a tool to infiltrated and bring Fred Hampton and his tactics down. King’s film could sound pompous and familiar on paper but he uses his pawns, his tone, and his wit to incredible results. In turn diverting a sharp-eyed look at police brutality, social injustice, and overall mistreatment of a certain race seen through the life stories of lesser-known characters.
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Judas and the Black Messiah focuses on Hampton’s idea of setting up a ‘Rainbow Coalition.’ A multicultural political organization that initially included the Chicago Street gangs, namely – Black Panthers, Young Patriots, and the Young Lords. However, most of the narrative is either focused on O’Neil trying to gain Hampton’s trust as he becomes a bigger part of the Black Panthers or on the FBI forging up newer ways to hamper Hampton’s ideals. While the prior is done with great conviction, the FBI sequences are steeped in uninventive police procedurals and a make-up-drenched Martin Sheen. This just doesn’t sit well with the rest of the film.
The film would have benefited greatly if more time was spent within the Black Panthers’ office rather than focusing on the FBI’s stomp tactics. Jesse Plemons is a great actor and if the film used his civil, white-privilege tricks to lure Hampton into being a deceiver, the film would have soared to great heights. LaKeith Stanfield as O’Neil is in great form. He inhabits the skin of a person who keeps his beliefs moving between two extreme ends but remains apolitical till the very end. While the occasional one-note writing takes us out of the conflict he is facing, Stanfield endowed him with enough gravitas to avoid the off-notes.
This is a Shakespearean tragedy at its center (refer to the title) but King presents his characters and their motives inside a dynamite-like narrative structure that is engrossing and entertaining at the same time. Daniel Kaluuya as the ever-so-inspiring leader of the group punctuates his performance with great vigor and attentiveness. Bringing out the much-needed intensity to the center stage. There are some staggering, goose-bump-worthy moments – especially the ones where we see Hampton on the stage singing his wisdom to the crowd.
King also fleshes out Hampton’s personal life in a rather busy story that deals with his external one. Kaluuya has great chemistry with Dominique Fishback who plays fellow activist and lover Deborah Johnson. The two of them connect with each other over poetry and their shared love for Dr. Martin Luthur King’s speech. These moments feel well-etched out, in spite of taking up only a scars part of the overall runtime.
Judas and the Black Messiah takes a look at American at its most divided. The extremeness and brutal ways of treating human life prevail even today. The 1960s aesthetic and tales told by activists really bring out King’s wish for a wider audience to witness how Black Lives are treated in the world. It is neither preachy nor emotionally manipulative as it recounts white Supremecy at its uncouth worst.
‘JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH’ PREMIERED AT THE 2021 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
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WARNER BROS. WILL BE RELEASING JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH IN SELECT THEATRES AND HBO MAX ON FEBRUARY 12
DIRECTOR: Shaka King
SCREENWRITER(S): Will Berson, Shaka King
EDITOR: Kristan Sprague
DOP: Sean Bobbitt
MUSIC: Craig Harris, Mark Isham
COUNTRY: UNITED STATES
RUNTIME: 126 MINUTES
LINKS: IMDB, ROTTEN TOMATOES