Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) dir. Shaka King

The first great film of 2021 has arrived


Black Panther Party Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton was wrongfully executed in his sleep by police in 1969 at the age of 21, and now we finally have a thrilling film documenting his final days and the betrayal of his close confidant. Judas and the Black Messiah is the first Hollywood production about his work and legacy, anchored by the stellar performances of Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as undercover FBI informant Bill O’Neal. This film will be at the top of everyone’s mind this month, further solidifying both actors as the biggest stars in cinema. Also, Kaluuya should probably win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

My brain is still recovering from my Sundance coverage, but I knew I wanted to give a special shoutout to Judas and the Black Messiah. It is premiering in theaters and on HBO Max immediately after the festival, and thus will actually be accessible to people. In many ways the film speaks for itself, but I do have a few observations: It’s great! It’s infuriating! LaKeith freaks me out! He’s a genius! The shootouts feel like Tenet but not as confusing! Martin Sheen shows up in J. Edgar Hoover makeup! Jesse Plemons is aging into the exact character actor he was always meant to be! Dominique Fishback is great though her role is often limited to “girlfriend!”

WB lets the film be progressive, but it still has its limits. Hampton only says “socialism” once near the beginning of the film, his other political beliefs somewhat glazed over even as Kaluuya delivers passionate speeches to the Panthers. At times the film feels like it’s trying to remain neutral on the Panthers, though it obviously condemns the FBI’s murderous and deceitful tactics. I’m told The Murder of Fred Hampton will help fill in the historical blanks of the film, though I’ve not watched it myself yet. I’d also like to recommend Agnès Varda’s short film Black Panthers, currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, as a great glimpse into a day in the life of the activists behind the organization.With real footage of Hampton, O’Neal, and the Panthers at the start and end of the film, director Shaka King is very deliberately forcing you to remember that this really happened. This is not an escapist film. If Judas and the Black Messiah gets people who know nothing of Hampton to research his beliefs and convictions, it was worth it. Also the FBI should be disbanded, but hopefully you knew that.

Judas and the Black Messiah
Dir. Shaka King
126 min

In theaters and streaming on HBO Max Friday 2/12

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