Biography Drama

Review: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is a Riveting and Resonant Call to Action

February 11, 2021Ben MK

Although it's based on events that took place over half a century ago, there are many elements of Judas and the Black Messiah that still ring true today. As a movie about the ongoing fight for racial equality, this is of course unsurprising. But director Shaka King's biopic about civil rights activist Fred Hampton and the FBI's quest to silence him proves riveting and resonant in more ways than one.

Set between 1968 and 1969, the film tells the story of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), an outspoken figure in Chicago's Black Panther party, despite being only in his early '20s. After rising to national prominence as the Deputy Chairman of the group's Illinois chapter, however, he lands himself on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the FBI, who equate the Black Panthers to the African American equivalent of the KKK. Regarding Hampton as a terrorist threat, the FBI make it their mission to bring him down. But in order to do so, they'll need someone to infiltrate the party and help them keep tabs on Hampton.

Enter William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a not-so-common car thief and career criminal whose modus operandi of impersonating a Federal officer lands him in an interrogation room with FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Given the choice of either jail time or becoming an FBI informant, O'Neal chooses the latter and soon finds himself a trusted member of Hampton's inner circle. Promoted to the rank of Security Captain, O'Neal is tasked with all aspects of ensuring the safety of the group's Chicago headquarters and its members. As tensions rise between law enforcement and the Black Panthers, however, O'Neal must decide where his allegiances truly lie.

What follows makes for an excellent companion piece to the recent documentary MLK/FBI. But whereas that film used archival footage and real-life interviews to detail J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI's years-long campaign of vilification against Martin Luther King Jr., Judas and the Black Messiah accomplishes the same regarding the government's pursuit of Hampton, relying instead on the strong performances from its excellent cast, which also includes a compelling Dominique Fishback as Hampton's poet girlfriend and the mother of his child.

Nonetheless, it's Stanfield and Kaluuya who emerge as the standouts here. Whether in scenes together or on their own, both actors are mesmerizing in their roles, so much so that it's difficult to discern which character is the actual focal point of the movie. Either way, the result is about more than just these two men and what they represent — and if Judas and the Black Messiah doesn't inspire you to action then you've missed the point entirely.

Judas and the Black Messiah releases February 12th, 2021 from Warner Bros. Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for violence and pervasive language. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 6 min.

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