Review by Dan Skip Allen
Judas and the Black Messiah is the seventh film about the Black Panthers. The film focuses its lens on the Chicago branch of the party, specifically its enigmatic leader Fred Hampton. Hampton is played terrifically by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Mirror) in an Academy Award-worthy performance.
Hampton is trying to recruit new members for his cause, so he goes all over the city to do speeches. This puts a red flag on him and the FBI has been alerted of his presence in the civil rights movement. A two-bit car thief, William O'Neill (Lakieth Stanfield), has been captured by the FBI and is offered a plea deal. As part of the deal, he is supposed to infiltrate Hampton's crew. He reports to agent Roy Michell (Jesse Plemons) who has it out for Hampton.
Shaka King, the director of the film, has done a great job bringing the viewer right into the heart of the film. Hampton's life with his wife, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, Project Power), and his cause is everything that matters to him. Hampton is an enigmatic and electric human being when he is speaking to crowds of his followers. That is the strong part of the film. King doubles down on Hampton and O'Neill throughout the film. It was incredible to see inside this relationship and world.
Judas and the Black Messiah is the second film in recent months to focus on problems with the police in Chicago after The Trial of the Chicago 7. The aesthetic of the two films matches very closely. This period is very distinct and the clothes, cars, and the surrounding buildings and offices have to match. This period in U.S. history was full of strife. The police have a mission to eliminate the influence people of minority have in the country. Mayor Daly saw to that himself.
The strengths of the film are the embedding of characters and how they work together. The ensemble cast is littered with young but talented performers led by Kaluuya, Stanfield, Plemons, and Fishback, who are all terrific in their roles. They all play their parts to bring the viewer into this world. The dialogue works as well to bring the story full circle. The speeches from Hampton are amazing to listen to and his leadership comes out in a lot of one on one conversations.
Period piece films can be sometimes hit-or-miss. Judas and the Black Messiah is a hit anchored by great acting, production design, and script. This period is brought vividly to life by King and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Everything in this film worked for me. At a time in history where black people are having problems with the police, a lot of people will be able to relate to this story first-hand. Similar things are on the news every week in the country. With the extended Academy Awards deadline, this film will surely qualify for some Oscars. It deserves any awards it has coming its way.
Judas and the Black Messiah hits theaters and HBO Max on February 12.