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Review: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Directed by: Shaka King

Premise: Based on true events. Set in late 1960s Chicago, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is recruited by the FBI to join the Black Panthers as an informant. O’Neal gets close to Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

What Works: Judas and the Black Messiah is a historical drama that sets out to dramatize the life of Fred Hampton and the work of the Black Panthers in late 1960s Chicago. It’s a film with an unmissable political agenda; the filmmakers set out to cut through rumors and misconceptions about Hampton and the Panthers and convince us of the righteousness of their cause. It’s difficult to say whether Judas and the Black Messiah will actually convert anyone but the filmmakers do a fine job providing a fair and mostly accurate portrait of who Hampton was, what the Black Panthers were up to, and how the FBI and the Chicago Police Department plotted to thwart them. Despite being a polemical film, Judas and the Black Messiah is effective because the filmmakers embed the politics within the drama. The picture works the Panther’s activities organically into the story so that we understand the point without the filmmakers resorting to clunky exposition. Judas and the Black Messiah burns with righteous indignation but it doesn’t feel condescending or preachy. The moviemakers tell their story well and that’s why the film’s works as a piece of rhetoric. Judas and the Black Messiah impresses as a period piece. The movie is set in late 1960s Chicago and it has an authentic feel for its time and place. Historical movies can sometimes feel artificial and removed but the costumes and sets look of their time and the actors are in the moment. The film has some exceptional performances. Daniel Kaluuya is well cast as Fred Hampton and he captures the Black Panther chairman’s charisma and intelligence. Kaluuya makes it believable that people would follow him. Judas and the Black Messiah is really about FBI informant William O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. Stanfield gets the paranoia of a narc but also the guilt and helplessness of someone caught up in events that are beyond his ability to grasp.

What Doesn’t: The one weak element of Judas and the Black Messiah is its ending, specifically the coda that concludes the picture. Judas and the Black Messiah ends with a drawn-out postscript that fills in what happened to the surviving characters. This goes on too long and skims over too much information, especially the way it summarizes the remainder of William O’Neal’s life. This ought to have been dramatized. Although it might have made the film considerably longer, dramatizing O’Neal’s later years would have transformed and enriched this story.

Bottom Line: Judas and the Black Messiah is an intense historical drama. The movie is a political statement and the filmmakers aren’t coy about that. But the picture is so successful as a polemic because it is such a well-executed drama.

Episode: #843 (March 14, 2021)