Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Release Date: February 12th, 2021 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Shaka King Actors: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen

 


 

T

hough inspired by true events, the initial framing device, beginning with a recreated television interview long after the specific events of this film, paired with archival footage as if a documentary, is immediately disappointing. After all, it’s absolutely not the first time a biographical picture (as well as pure fiction pieces) has employed similar techniques (plus, it’s even something of a spoiler for those unaware of the historical aftermath). Fortunately, once the story proper begins in Chicago in 1968, the scenario quickly turns exciting – and then unsettling. “A badge is scarier than a gun.”

J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) vehemently insists that the Black Panthers are the biggest threat the nation faces, and he’s particularly fearful of a Black Messiah rising up from their ranks. Meanwhile, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) poses as a federal officer, threatening youngsters in a bar so that they empty their pockets onto a pool table, hoping to snag car keys for an easy grand theft auto. But when his latest impersonation finds him fleeing for his life, and then arrested by the police, Bill winds up in the presence of real FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, perfectly typecast as a quietly menacing, manipulative person of inevitable power-abuse), who offers him an opportunity to avoid a more than 6-year incarceration – by infiltrating and spying on the local Black Panthers to get close to Deputy Chairman of the Illinois party, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

While the first act sticks to introducing the players with plenty of familiar routines (including a terribly contrived moment in which a former victim recognizes an impostor), there’s a certain severity (and authenticity) coating the locations, character designs, and dialogue. Every scene involving O’Neal tends to grow steadily more tense, while the ones in between demonstrate a tenderness and poetry, as a love story blossoms with speechwriter Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). And as the film progresses, the verve and suspense also amplify, with Hampton’s targeted persecution proving increasingly infuriating, while the governmental corruption and perpetration of further injustices are just as maddening. But in a welcome, theatrical manner, the continual oppression leads to surprising inspiration and collaboration.

Along with the cleverly disguised, brief history lesson, “Judas and the Black Messiah” boasts a sensational construction (the pacing is ever so slightly off), using the plot of a mole to build a thriller along the lines of “The Departed.” Yet what makes it all come together is the acting. Stanfield is extraordinary as the conflicted double-agent, occasionally adopting then discarding his deceitful facade within the very same scenes to staggering effect. And Kaluuya has matured considerably since his star-making turn in “Get Out,” showcasing a range and genuineness that mark his best performance to date. The many nuanced supporting roles are comparably balanced against a backdrop of violence and betrayal, with emotional reflection remaining potent when alternated with brutality, underdog revolutionary causes, and looming tragedies. Plus, the finale (with one of the most shocking, jaw-dropping codas ever used) is unforgettable, demonstrating both an entertaining educational value alongside the powerfully encouraging sense that no matter the odds or the losses, perseverance and progress for social equality are ultimately unstoppable. “I think I’ll let history speak for me.”

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10