"Judas and the Black Messiah" will remind you of other "undercover" movies, like "Donnie Brasco" or "Serpico," but with a timely twist. It's story, directed with confidence and urgency by Shaka King, is a gripping drama that will not only enrage, but enlighten, featuring some bold performances from Daniel Kaluuya and LeKeith Stanfield.
Kaluuya and Stanfield shared the screen before back in Jordan Peele's 2017 "Get Out," but both actors couldn't be playing characters farther removed from the ones they portrayed in that film. The "Judas" in the title refers to real-life FBI informant William O'Neal (Stanfield), who - facing felony charges for stealing a car and driving it over state lines - was tasked with infiltrating the Illinois chapter of The Black Panthers and it's young leader, Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the "Black Messiah." FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) is O'Neal's contact, and the one who eventually leads the raid against Hampton. At the time of these actual events, O'Neal was just 17, and Hampton, 21.
Unlike "Serpico" or "Donnie Brasco," the undercover character in this film does not have a noble, or a broader mission...O'Neal is simply doing what he needs to do for selfish reasons and for self-preservation. He does in fact "climb the ranks" and becomes an important, trusted player in Hampton's world, knowing full-well what the outcome will be.
But what many (white) viewers might discover, is that there was way more to The Black Panthers than what has been taught or previously depicted. For example, community programs were a big part of the Panthers everyday activities, feeding children, raising awareness and funding treatment for various diseases affecting the Black community as well.
One particularly powerful sequence early in the film shows Panthers supplying free food to some local kids, before cutting to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) who, in front of an audience of FBI agents, announces that The Black Panthers "are the greatest threat to the internal security of our country." The juxtaposition couldn't paint a clearer picture of how the Panthers have been misrepresented and misconstrued for years, and through a white lens. There was criminal activity to be sure, but they were not a criminal organization.
Hampton though, was an electric personality, the sort of man who changed the room upon entering it. Kaluuya breaks new barriers for himself in how he commands each scene he's in, and the viewer is left to ponder what Hampton could have become, had he not been targeted by the FBI and had O'Neal understood the gravity of what he was doing to his own people's movement.
At times, "Judas and the Black Messiah" seems a bit too conventional (all undercover movies, for example, must include scenes where the undercover person must prove his loyalty by doing something heinous or illegal, or have other scenes where they nearly are discovered but talk their way out of it, etc.), but it also uncovers a lot of truths...truths about not just where we are now socially, but who we are, and who we could have been had men like Fred Hampton - or Dr. King or Malcolm X, etc - been given the chance to simply live.
Genre: Biography, Drama, History.
Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen, Lil Rel Howery.
Co-Written and Directed by Shaka King ("Newlyweeds").
"Judas and the Black Messiah" is available on Friday simultaneously in theaters and on HBO MAX, Friday, February 12th, 2021.
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