Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
Relevant story today
With Black Lives Matter and a growing socialist movement in America today, Judas and the Black Messiah is a fascinatingly relevant movie. William O’Neal and Fred Hampton are the titular figures of this film. The story is intentionally one-sided in its depiction of a key historical era in America. Even so, there is plenty of nuance and a lot of suspense in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Fred Hampton becomes the Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. His leadership puts him in direct conflict with the FBI and the Chicago Police. In an effort to destroy Black Panthers from within, the FBI plants an informant to provide intel on Hampton. Faced with a prison sentence, William O’Neal agrees to infiltrate the Black Panthers for his freedom.
I expected Judas and the Black Messiah to be a ‘difficult but necessary’ watch. My suspicion was that it would be a similar biopic to Lincoln or Capote or Milk. I figured I wouldn’t actually enjoy the movie, but when it was over, I would be glad I watched it. The trailers and other promotional material did a good job of making it seem entertaining but I wasn’t initially convinced. I’m glad to say that my initial expectations were off. This was a good movie.
What I liked
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield give really great performances in this movie. Kaluuya gets to flex his acting muscles with his role. Fred Hampton was a charismatic activist with a penchant for words, so there were a lot of scene stealing moments for Kaluuya. But it’s Stanfield who gets to show true range. William O’Neal is conflicted and unsure of himself from the very first scene of the movie. Stanfield deftly portrays a man who is both opportunistic and remorseful. Viewers don’t feel sorry for O’Neal but they don’t fully hate him either. This is mostly to Stanfield’s credit.
The music is surprisingly prominent. Biopics often let the score play in the background like elevator music. Sometimes they’ll intentionally have very little or no music for extended scenes to convey ‘realness’. But Judas and the Black Messiah leans into its score in a highly effective way. The music elevates scenes like a choir backing its lead vocalist.
What I didn’t like
The movie is based on real events. Despite this, there were moments where I felt O’Neal’s infiltration should have been obvious to members of the Party. There’s a shootout scene in the movie that should have raised a number of eyebrows from his fellow Black Panthers but didn’t. I’m not sure if the moment took place in real life the same way as it did in the movie. Either way, the filmmakers should have tailored this scene better to the story being told on-screen.
The meetings between Jessie Plemmon’s Roy Mitchell and Stanfield’s O’Neal were also something that threw me off. There was nothing clandestine about discussions between this FBI Agent and his informant. Instead, they kept meeting at packed restaurants and talking openly about their next steps. It seemed out of character for O’Neal and out of step with the plot.
Judas and the Black Messiah is not an ‘eat your vegetables’ watch. The movie is genuinely suspenseful and entertaining from beginning to end. It just happens to be about an important person and moment in American history. I’d highly recommend this film.
Source: Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros. Entertainment) (2021)