Judas and the Black Messiah
Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
A biopic about Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton and the events leading up to his assassination could easily have fallen into self-sabotaging territory, especially nowadays. The fact that one of the linchpins in his death was informant Bill O’Neal increases those odds. Also, a modern climate that will freely quote Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, yet conveniently sideline his comments on white liberals and the First Amendment, might make a major Hollywood studio like Warner Bros. too squeamish to adhere too closely to the real story.
But if anything, this serves as a dramatised reaffirmation of what Hampton stood for, what he fought for, and what he ended up dying for. Daniel Kaluuya is an ever-burning firecracker as Hampton himself, where his motormouth delivery might blur some of his consistently pointed words, his raw energy exudes the aura of someone who, even at such a young age, could bring the disregarded together. No words are minced about his socialist politics and his want not for reform but all-out revolution, in a quite refreshing change of pace for this brand of mainstream biopic – as a result, both he and the activist work of the Panthers are given an authentic representation.
Opposite Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield as O’Neal (and Jesse Plemons as his handler Agent Mitchell) gradually reveals what Hampton is up against: the white status quo – the political forces that see life as expendable (no matter if it’s Black, White, or Blue) if it gets in the way of changing what works for those who already benefit. Pushed into informing on the Panthers’ actions, Stanfield portrays the titular Judas much as the original myth bearing his name: acknowledging the part he played in the tragedy, while also showing that his was only one cog in the machinations of a much higher authority.
Writer/producer/director Shaka King does what any biopic maker worth their salt should and, without straining to make it fit, draws attention to how much the guts of this story have remained relevant to the present day.
Coming from two lead actors who got their mainstream boost through appearing in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and producer Ryan Coogler who turned MLK and Malcolm X into superheroes in a film about a different Black Panther, Judas And The Black Messiah working this well as sociopolitical truth to power is to be expected. Delivered this boldly and with tension to spare only makes it hit that much harder.