“Judas and the Black Messiah,” starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, and directed by Shaka King, takes us back to the oppressively dangerous city of Chicago in 1969 where a petty criminal is flipped to be an informant for the FBI, resulting in the death of an upcoming leader, Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) of the Chicago Black Panther Party.
Based on a true story, co-writers Will Berson and Shaka King take riveting testimony, transcripts, and first-hand interviews to recreate the events that occurred during that pivotal year. The story carefully weaves together three different perspectives to give us the complete picture of how Fred Hampton was assassinated at the age of 21; such a threat to the FBI for being the next Black leader or as he was coined, the next Black Messiah.
We meet the young O’Neal caught between a rock and a hard place as he is about to be charged as a criminal. Given the opportunity by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to have all charges dropped in exchange for information about the whereabouts and plannings of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party, O’Neal saves himself. Quickly gaining access and trust of those around Hampton, O’Neal does as he is asked, from both parties. The conflict he feels is palpable, but ultimately this man is no hero and like Judas, betrays his people and leader.
Taking us inside the operations as Hampton meets and falls in love with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a talented actress who stands out in this film, we get what feels like a private introduction to an eloquent man who is driven to help his people gain equality amidst the chaos of oppression and brutality. He gives of himself and connects others with him to find a commonality among all people. Kaluuya digs deep to find this intrinsic value of love while having a coat of armor to repel the evils that rain down on him and those he leads.
What O’Neal lacks in morals he makes up for in his ability to read others and insinuate himself like a chameleon into whatever the situation calls for. He’s street smart with characteristics that are always self-serving. Stanfield, like Kaluuya, dives into this character as he exhibits his fight for survival but there’s a glimmer of internal conflict as he battles his inner demons of betrayal.
“Judas” also portrays the preposterous paranoia and prejudices of the head of the FBI and those who serve the organization lead by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). The targeting of the Black Panthers does nothing more than to escalate tensions making it difficult to not only resolve issues but to educate others. The racism is ingrained and built upon to ensure that Hampton and the Chicago chapter’s goals are quelled through raids and even murder. The film hammers home the disturbing elements of racial injustices as we witness the atrocities unfold.
Like Spike Lee’s “Blackkklansman,” this is an incredulous story based in reality. King delicately sets the tone of the film as he develops each of his characters to give a basis for their decisions. Stanfield may have the more difficult role as he portrays a man whose morals betray not only his people but ultimately himself. We understand his predicament and his decisions as those in power manipulate him like a marionette.
The pacing of the film falters slightly in the second act which takes away some of the passion that should have been present. However, the final act is riveting as we discover more truths and contemplate what could have been. The civil rights movement is still moving; a finish line that should have been crossed decades ago. “Judas” reminds us of our history and to discover the importance of seeing the full picture.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” opens in theaters and HBOMax on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.
3 1/2 Stars