Good cinema evokes emotion. Excellent cinema does this by having actors that infuse themselves into the soul of the characters. Life changing cinema does all that with a script where every word matters and every shot is important. Judas and the Black Messiah (HBO Max) accomplishes all that, bringing to life a story that deviates from the traditional history we’re taught while challenging our perceptions of good and evil.
Set in the literal life and death civil rights struggle in late 1960s Chicago, this movie simmers with anger and injustice from the start, rarely giving any relief to the viewer.
Civil Rights and Wrongs
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of Chicago’s Black Panther Party in 1968. Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrates the group as an FBI informant so he can avoid prison time for his own crimes. Hampton takes over the organization with the goal of bringing the community together to educate and care for themselves through schools, food programs, and health clinics. As an excuse to further his own racism, FBI Director Herbert Hoover (Martin Sheen who looks more like Robert Duvall than Hoover) declares the Panthers a terrorist organization and says a ‘black messiah’ can’t be allowed to emerge for people to rally around.
Throughout, director Shaka King shows accepted systemic racism towards a community that is just trying to live and thrive. From trumped up arrests to drunk police taunting them outside headquarters, firebombing their headquarters in broad daylight to, ultimately, extrajudicial execution.
Much of the police actions are based on the intel provided by O’Neal. But here is where the storytelling gets interesting. Is O’Neal a true believer reluctantly acting in his own self interests? Does he enjoy the perks of being an informant (a sweet ride, fancy dinners, extra cash) a little too much? Does he really consider Hampton a friend? By telling the story from his perspective as well as Fred’s, we get an uncomfortable look at these opposing dynamics.
Heart and Soul
Kaluuya and Stansfield bring life to these figures, infusing them with heart. Listening to Kaluuya deliver Fred’s speeches makes you feel like you are there. I’m hard pressed to remember a more passionate and dynamic performance. LaKeith’s torn portrayal shows us O’Neal’s fears: fear of being discovered and tortured by the Panthers, fear of Hampton being killed, fear for his mortal soul.
But those fears don’t stop him from his Judas behavior. The symbolism of him accepting money from his FBI handler (Jesse Plemons), is evident and the one time when the movie borders on hit-you-over-the-head-to-drive-home-the-point.
But the North Star of Judas and the Black Messiah is Dominique Fishbeck, who plays Fred’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson. Her poetry directs Fred’s speeches. Her passion for the cause fuels his passion for her. And her sadness, when he declares he will die in the fight leaving her a single mother, fuels our sadness and anger. She owns every moment she is on camera, and without her this film would be greatly diminished. I can’t wait to see what her talents will gift us with next.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
After watching a movie this powerful, I want to have the cognac-based Celebration, because this movie is a triumph from angry start to heartbreaking end.