JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021) -Bio Pic of Black Panther Leader Tells Dark and Depressing Story

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021) was not an easy movie to sit through.

In fact, it was downright painful.

Perhaps it was made more excruciating by my viewing it on the same day Donald Trump was acquitted of insurrection charges in his second impeachment trial. See, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, the story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the man who betrayed him, Bill O’Neal, is less about race and more about the power establishment in the United States and how its sole purpose is to keep the lesser folks down. This notion seems more true today in 2021 than in the time this film takes place, in the late 1960s.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH tells the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, in an Oscar-worthy performance) who leads the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. His goal is not just to fight the establishment for the black population, but for the underprivileged population, who he views as never having a chance unless they all fight back together, which is why he spends so much of his time trying to build bridges between the different factions fighting for the same thing.

As such, he draws the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) who makes it the Bureau’s mission to take Hampton down. To do so, he puts the pressure on one of his agents, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to get the job done, going so far as to make veiled threats against Mitchell’s family if he fails. Mitchell turns to a car thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) making him an FBI informant on the inside of the Black Panthers with the express mission of getting close to Hampton and informing Mitchell of his secrets. Eventually, the stakes are raised, when Hoover makes it known that the only solution to their problem is to have Hampton end up dead.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH tells as bleak a story as you are going to find. While Hampton does his best to be the leader that his people need, at the end of the day, it’s a losing battle, and the establishment with all the power at the beginning of the story holds on to that power by the end, and Hampton ends up dead. And the story is even more depressing because it is true.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is driven by powerful performances throughout. As I said, Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Fred Hampton is Oscar worthy. It’s riveting, raw, and real. To horror fans, Kaluuya is known for his starring role in GET OUT (2017). To Marvel superhero movie fans, he’s known for his supporting role in BLACK PANTHER (2018). I liked him in both those movies. His work here in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is his best yet.

LaKeith Stanfield is equally as intense as informant Bill O’Neal, who grows off the charts stressed out as the stakes keep getting raised, as he is continually thrust into impossible situations by the FBI.

Jesse Plemons, who is always locked into his roles, excels as FBI agent Roy Mitchell. And when the heat is on and his own family is threatened by Hoover, he doubles down and becomes more relentless with O’Neal. There is no sympathy here for Mitchell. My favorite Plemons role remains his one season stint on BREAKING BAD as Todd, the odd cool-headed killer. But he’s also been in a bunch of movies and has been terrific in all of them.

Dominique Fishback is also powerful as Deborah Johnson, the woman who becomes involved with Hampton and eventually has his child.

And in limited screen time, Martin Sheen makes for a cold, callous, and very creepy J. Edgar Hoover.

The screenplay by Will Berson and director Shaka King is raw and rough. It makes JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH play like real life rather than like a movie.

Shaka King also directed, and while this one remains intense throughout, it does struggle with pacing. While there are some advantages to playing more like real life than a movie, one disadvantage is a lack of dramatic structure. While the film’s conclusion is certainly riveting, getting there is not.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is now available on HBO MAX, and of their recent “released on the same day as theater” movies, it’s the best of the lot so far.

That being said, I did slightly prefer ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2021) another civil rights film taking place in the late 1960s which premiered on Netflix a few weeks back slightly more, as that film was almost poetical in its execution and screenplay. There was just something mesmerizing about ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is not mesmerizing. It is, however, dark and depressing, telling a story from 1968-69 about a man who was trying to change things for his people, a man who died for his beliefs.

A man whose work remains largely unfinished in the here and now.

–END—

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