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Review SZN: Judas and the Black Messiah

By The Wiz On August 6th, 2020, the first trailer for Judas and The Black Messiah dropped, setting the expectations for the film through the roof. Obviously with movie theaters currently shut down, people were curious when the film would actually make its awaited debut. When Warner Brothers announced the film would premiere in theaters, but also have a linear launch on HBO Max, the masses salivated at seeing a potential acting masterclass. Now that is released, it is safe to say Judas and the Black Messiah was worth the wait.

Judas and The Black Messiah tells the story of FBI Informant William O’Neil and Fred Hampton, the Deputy Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. While matching their respective biblical roles as the title suggests, the depth of their situations and lives reveals the true story of the two men. The film brilliantly toes the line to not villainize one character while simultaneously portraying both parties as sympathetic characters tortured by the system in place.

Daniel Kaluuya, known most famously for his roles Get Out and Black Panther, gives audiences the defining performance of his young career. When his casting was announced, there was outrage over a British actor playing a US Civil Rights Era figure, but his performance quells all of that outrage. As Hampton, his balance between fervent public devotion and the role of caring, devoted friend and lover is magnificent. During his life, and even today, Hampton was known as one of the best orators alive. Stanfield’s character realizes this in the film and tells FBI Agent Mitchell that “he could sell salt to a slug.” The fact that Hampton was able to unite the Panthers, The Young Lords, The Crowns, and The Young Patriots should attest to that. It is no short feat that Kaluuya manages to not only match Hampton’s intonation, but performs speeches that could rival Hampton himself in passion. Viewers should feel droves of emotion when listening to him speak.

The humanist side of Hampton is even more important to the story. While he looks like a hate-filled, impassioned man, that simply isn’t the case. Hampton, with the organization and with friends, was a loveable and respectful man. He cared for others but most of all, cared about the people. He wanted the world to be a better place, even if it cost him his life and cared about others over himself. In the end, he dies the hero's death like a true Messiah. That death, as painful as it was, was exactly what he saw coming. He died a hero before he could become a villain. As it stands, this performance lands Kaluuya as the front runner for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.

Alongside Kaluuya is LaKeith Stanfield, the proverbial Judas and a much more complex figure. While his information led to the assaniation of Hampton, he did not have any other option. As a result of an incident in his youth, Stanfield’s O’Neil becomes an FBI informant to avoid going to jail. Even as the danger rises and O’Neil wants to get out, there is no choice for him but to stay. He is stuck between having to continue to feed the FBI information, or go to jail for multiple years. O’Neil always desired power, that is how he became an informant, although he never realized what that power would cost. In a way, this presents his character with some level sympathy. Does that make him look better, no, but it does show that he was a symptom of a bigger issue; the world around him.

What ties these two characters together are the performances of Jesse Plemmons and Martin Sheen. Sheen’s despicable J. Edgar Hoover spews unauthenticated notions of Hampton being a national security threat and that he must be stopped. He is the stand in for the government as the “ruling class” that oppresses the little man. Plemmons meanwhile plays Roy Mitchell, the FBI Agent assigned as O’Neil’s handler. While not despicable like Hoover, Mitchell is the man who does not always feel like he belongs in the FBI. There is one specific scene that implies this when he meets directly with Hoover. Hoover is a totally different breed from Mitchell. Mitchell has compassion while Hoover is a single minded, bigoted man. In the end, Mitchell is relatively sympathetic but lightly forces O’Neil to continue informing the FBI because of what he holds over him with jail time. He is both the messenger and the judge, but not the executioner. Much like O’Neil, he is stuck doing his job for better or for worse.

This film in fact was a collaboration of two different ideas. Originally, Shaka King and The Lucas Brothers worked on their plan for a Fred Hampton biopic while Will Berson was working on a similar film. The four created a film that not only spoke to a time in the past but the present as well. The actions by the police, the government, and even the characters themselves. The police are still poorly run, the government does not help its citizens, and the people fighting for it are being persecuted by those with power. Some people may compare this film to Malcom X, but that does not do this film justice. Malcolm X is a life story of an iconic figure, while this film is about Fred Hampton at the peak of his power and the people who are fighting to stop him.

The central concept of this film, being that the people have the power, is repeated. That message rings true today and is a major principle in Democratic politics in 2021. Despite attempts by Conservatives to restrict polling places and other actions to control their power, the people get together to win. There is no better parallel today than what Stacey Abrams has done in Georgia. Over the past four years, she became the primary force in getting minorities out to vote. She took the principles of Hampton and implemented them to shocking effect this past election cycle, resulting in the power of the people working. In the end, even with Hampton’s death and O’Neil’s betrayal, that is the message to take away from this film. If the masses can stand united, there is no greater threat to those who fail to use their power for the people. It may have cost Hampton his life, but it let the world know that the power to unite is more dangerous than anything in the world and that the people are the key to everything.

Grade: A (9/10)

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