Judas and the Black Messiah Review – Power to the People

Judas and the Black Messiah

It seems that every period piece that has come out recently has a strong message based on the present political situation. Shaka King’s debut film, Judas and the Black Messiah, is one of these films. Not only does the film indict police brutality and corruption in America 50 years ago, but the continued presence of racism and police brutality on a national stage. The film follows Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal. It’s one of the most inspirational and poignant political films ever made. Judas is also a hell of an entertaining film and one of the year’s very best.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a stunning, revelatory character study of two contrasting characters, William O’Neal and Fred Hampton. William is an FBI mole inside the Black Panther Party, while Fred is the Party’s charismatic chairman whose sole purpose is to unite and help the community against injustice. The film also examines the themes of loyalty, social divides, and police conspiracies during the 60s civil rights movement. It’s Malcolm X meets The Greatest Story Ever Told and scripted like a Scorsese crime drama — a fitting mixture. As Scorsese once said, “the emotional violence is much more terrifying than physical violence,” and the story of Judas and the Black Messiah will take you on an emotional ride.

As one dissects the motives and actions of both characters, Judas and the Black Messiah takes the concept of betrayal to whole new heights. Because it’s not a coincidence that the word “Judas” is in the film’s title. As you progress through the film, you start to see the stunning similarities between William’s story and the Bible’s most notorious traitor, Judas Iscariot. Much like Judas, William O’Neal gave in to his greed and fears. What he didn’t expect is that his betrayal had a devastating effect on him — more than his greed and conscience expected, and his profound shame led him to some deep and agonizing pain. Unfortunately for him, even his source of remorse comes from a place of selfishness.

He had no desire to save Fred but only to get rid of his shame. It’s a very human element that we sometimes can’t seem to differentiate. Shame is self-destructive, while guilt can be used as a motivator to change ourselves. William is full of shame, not guilt. LaKeith Stanfield (Knives Out) gives such a subtle depiction of William O’Neal’s greed, fears, and shame. The pain in the eyes, the clenched mouth, the hesitant speech patterns, all of the physical signs crucial to William’s story, and Stanfield knocked it out of the park.

Yet the “Black Messiah” in the title, Fred Hampton, is the one who steals the show. Much like Jesus, Fred Hampton performs miracles out of the seemingly impossible. We’re not talking about bringing people back from the dead, but Hampton’s words could bring the unlikeliest of people together. When you unite the Confederate rednecks, Puerto Ricans, and rival gangs together for the same cause, then you have a gift. Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther) gives the performance of his life as his on-screen gravitas intensifies the monologues he delivers in the film.

Judas and the Black Messiah - LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons

For a first time director, Shaka King has seemingly established himself as a gifted storyteller. He’s someone who carefully considers his shots while telling a story, which is a surprising rarity in Hollywood. You would think that filmmakers would give careful consideration for every single shot, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen. It’s why his use of carefully placed close-up shots showcase the emotional and powerful expressions on the faces of the characters. As Louis D. Giannetti said in his book Understanding Movies, “the closer the shot, the more intense the emotion.” It’s what makes the film feel so raw and powerful.

Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah is a moving reflection on shame, remorse, and responsibility on a deeply personal scale. In a time and place when tensions between the police and people of color are at their highest in decades, Shaka King’s Judas suddenly feels more important than ever.

Rating: 4.5/5 atoms

Judas and the Black Messiah hits theaters and HBO Max on February 12th.

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Mark Pacis
Mark Pacis 1628 posts

Self-proclaimed "Human IMDb" and comic book geek. Biggest Iron Man fan you'll probably ever meet.