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JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH review: Tense, powerful and relevant

Judas and the Black Messiah is powerful, poignant, and important.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

Last week, I had the absolute privilege of watching Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. The film takes us back to the 1960s and focuses on the betrayal of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Black Panther Party in Illinois, at the hands of the criminal and infiltrator, William O’Neal. While the Black Panther Party attempts to expand by allying with neighboring gangs and groups, O’Neal thrives on the profitable opportunities presented to him by playing both the BPP and the FBI.

You can check out the official synopsis from Warner Bros. below:

FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). A career thief, O’Neal revels in the danger of manipulating both his comrades and his handler, Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Hampton’s political prowess grows just as he’s falling in love with fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Meanwhile, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul. Will he align with the forces of good? Or subdue Hampton and The Panthers by any means, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) commands?

To put it simply, Judas and the Black Messiah is a fantastic film. But before I jump into the film itself, I actually wanted to focus briefly on the title. It’s not very often that I pay attention or even complement the title of the film. However, Judas and the Black Messiah is genius. A film’s title often hints to what the film is actually about. As it should. But Judas and the Black Messiah does it in such a unique way by connecting it to a story that we are all familiar with.

The story of Jesus and Judas is mirrored in King’s intense biographical drama and I loved that. It felt powerful yet poignant. Despite not knowing much about the Black Panther Party, I got everything that I needed to know from the title. I knew straight away that this was a film about betrayal, trust and brotherhood. Fred Hampton stood as the Jesus figure rallying people together and giving them a voice, while O’Neal posed as a trusted friend and ally waiting for his moment to turn. There he is, Judas.

LaKeith Stanfield as William ‘Neal

The growing relationship between Fred and O’Neal is the central focusing point of this story. Of course, you have other things happening at the same time, Hampton falls in love, the FBI look for ways to manage the BPP, and members of the BPP get into trouble resulting in some gruesome deaths which unfortunately are not fictitious, but they are all connected to the dynamic relationship between O’Neal and Hampton. That is ultimately where the film shines. We get to see that bond grow and flourish. But while that is happening, O’Neal is struggling with his inevitable betrayal. We get to see him doubt his decisions and question his ideals. Unfortunately, we already know how it is going to end. This is the story of Jesus and Judas, after all.

LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are absolutely fantastic in Judas and the Black Messiah. Their performances are captivating and they were just brilliant to watch from start to finish. What I really admired is that we’re presented with two incredibly diverse characters. O’Neal starts off as this troubled criminal. But through his work with Hampton he rises the ranks and begins to transform. Seeing him grapple with the two different sides is quite exhilarating as well. He’s not a professional informant and that really shows. That fundamental flaw results in some incredibly tense scenes. It also weighs him down and that’s what I truly enjoyed most. O’Neal is forced to make some brutal decisions and Stanfield captures that brilliantly with a visceral performance. You could see the pain, you could see the conflict, and you could sense the regret.

Judas and the Black Messiah is available to watch on HBO Max in the US now.

On the other side of the relationship you have Fred Hampton played by the wonderful Daniel Kaluuya. Unlike O’Neal, Hampton focuses on helping those around him and pushing the BPP into the spotlight. At first, he comes across as very strict and determined but after meeting Deborah Johnson we soon learn that he’s just a regular person with a big dream. While the film focuses on his charismatic demeanor and his resolve, we get glimpses of his personal life and it only adds to devastation that awaits. As voyeuristic observers, we’re forced to watch both O’Neal and Hampton grow as characters while we wait for the catalyst that will trigger a chain of disturbing events.

With a combination of a fantastic cast, a powerful and exhilarating story, and a brilliantly structured and immersive rendering of 1960s Illinois, you get a great film. There’s a lot more that I could say about this film. But it’s one that should be enjoyed in its entirety and I can’t wait for people to experience it.

William O’Neal with Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons)

Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful, intense, and relevant film that is carried by a fantastic story that unravels beautifully, and an outstanding cast, most notably Stanfield and Kaluuya who deliver two incredibly juxtaposing performances. As someone who knew very little about the Black Panther Party and the events that occurred from within, this film was incredibly illuminating. Given the current climate surrounding race, particularly in the States, I think this film highlights that there is still a lot of work to be done.

If you’re unfamiliar with this particular civil rights movement then this film is a must. Not only is it a great film in general, it’s also quite educational to an extent. It’s important to understand the history behind civil right movements such as this one. Especially when those same problems are still prevalent today almost 60 years later. It’s a very sad truth. While I absolutely loved Judas and the Black Messiah part of me just felt sad when it had finished. Partly because I felt that the story of the Black Panther Party was something that I should have known and definitely would have liked to have learnt in school. But also because it made me realise that despite 60 years of human growth we are still anchored by the same prejudices and the same inclination to incite violence towards those who are different.

This film opens up an incredibly interesting dialogue not only regarding the quality of the film itself but also the message attached to it. I can’t wait for people to see and talk about Judas and the Black Messiah once it becomes available.

Don’t forget to check out the full trailer.

Inspired by true events, Judas and the Black Messiah is directed by Shaka King, marking his studio feature film directorial debut. The project originated with King and his writing partner, Will Berson, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Kenny Lucas & Keith Lucas, who co-wrote the story with Berson & King. King, who has a long relationship with filmmaker Ryan Coogler, pitched the film to Coogler and Charles D. King, who are producing the film with Shaka King. The executive producers are Sev Ohanian, Zinzi Coogler, Kim Roth, Poppy Hanks, Ravi Mehta, Jeff Skoll, Anikah McLaren, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Ted Gidlow, and Niija Kuykendall.

Judas and the Black Messiah is available to watch in the US on HBO Max. However, the film is yet to receive a release date for the UK. We’ll be sure to keep you posted, you don’t want to miss out on this one.


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