REVIEW: “Judas & the Black Messiah” is masterfully executed, timely and liberating

Boyce Rucker, Contributing Writer

Although historical biopics serve as a retelling of history’s brightest or darkest moments, they also serve as a message that not much has changed in the present day. Released on Feb. 12, 2021, to theaters and HBO Max, Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the latest release to cover historical events defined by notable topics that carry relevance today, particularly the subjects of racial injustice and revolutionism.

King crafts a historical drama that feels enthralling with its intense elements, powerful performances, and narrative. The film focuses on the efforts of William O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield), a car thief turned FBI informant who’s tasked with infiltrating a Black Panther Party chapter located in Chicago, Illinois, and gathering information for FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) in exchange for a diminished prison sentence. 

The Black Panther chapter is led by the charismatic and lion-hearted chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whose ideals begin to influence O’Neil’s allegiances and motives. At the center of this story, is the tragedy that befalls Hampton, which ultimately stems from O’Neil’s decisions.

The film’s narrative provides a well-executed structure that makes it feel more immersive and humanizing than other biopics. The film is almost an urban war film, as neither law enforcement nor the Panther members are glorified and portrayed in the manner of black and white morality. Instead, the Panthers are shown as resilient and well-intentioned, but still as dangerous and brutal as the racially biased law enforcement within the film.

One could say that O’Neil is the focal character of the film, as his intro into the Black Panther organization doubles as the audience’s intro as well. The film carries a thriller component through its portrayal of O’Neil, especially as his character is at conflict with himself over his own loyalties and beliefs, and any move he makes directly impacts his own fate and that of those around him.

Focusing on O’Neil, a figure which most would have a hard time rooting for, adds a layer of moral complexity to the film that not many other biopics are able to do successfully. To note, even with such a large focus on the actions of O’Neil, the narrative recognizes the tragedy of Fred Hampton and prepares the audience for it by highlighting his compassion, revolutionary ideals and fearlessness in the events leading up to his death.  

As a film that focuses on radical themes and racial tension, the direction impressively emphasizes these themes. The film carries an intense atmosphere that’s not only conjured by O’Neil’s situation, but also by certain encounters that Panthers have with law enforcement or other organizations. The shootouts and vandalisms represent a form of urban warfare from the past that feels messy and weighty rather than simple action sequences.

Even conversations carry a pulse-pounding tension that elicits the fact that they could take a turn for the worse at any moment just by saying the wrong thing. For instance, viewers will notice this when coming upon one of the film’s more uncomfortable scenes involving Agent Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). The film is able to create effectively unnerving tension not only through scenes of violence but through well-written dialogue as well.

The film showcases both Stanfield and Kaluuya’s strong potential for leading roles, as audiences are able to recognize that both their past works have mostly consisted of portraying supporting characters in film and television. Stanfield displays a greater range to O’Neil than what was seen in his previous roles, as he brings an authentic portrayal of the tragic figure who’s caught between uneasy decisions and forced to make them without as much as any say in the matter. 

The moral complexity that Stanfield adopts makes the character easier to empathize with, but not exactly sympathize with. Additionally, the character of Fred Hampton feels like Daniel Kaluuya’s most vocal role to date. The Oscar-nominated actor delivers gravitas to the role of the young leader and enforces a strong sense of power that reinforces Hampton’s effectiveness as a leader and his own disciplined beliefs while still humanizing him. 

Even though Hampton is not the film’s focal character, Kaluuya is still able to make him stand out as an important figure that should be recognized in light of America’s recent, and similar, tragedies involving the wrongful deaths of Black people.

Coinciding with Black History Month, “Judas & The Black Messiah” is a timely film that carries powerful themes to remind viewers of the ongoing oppression and injustice that Black people continue to face. While it may deviate from the actual events a bit, the film does an excellent service of informing viewers about the tragedy of young and intelligent Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton. Through its prestigious execution and masterful performances, the film stands out as an early award contender and an important film for 2021.