Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

Judas and the Black Messiah tells a story of betrayal at a time when chaos reigned and the fight for equality was under scrutiny, as it follows FBI informant Bill O’Neal who infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in an attempt to get close to chairman Fred Hampton.

The film is a showcase of moving performances, with Daniel Kaluyya, Lakeith Stanfield and Dominique Fishback standing out. Kaluyya’s turn as Hampton is electric: he preaches, and his words and energy have the power to turn a room full of enemies into allies. Stanfield’s O’Neal is more subdued, observing from the sidelines and trying to conceal the conflict within him. Meanwhile, Fishback, who plays Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, is torn between her love for Hampton and the knowledge that tragedy can strike at any time and pushes through, but not without letting herself be vulnerable.

More often than not, the film tends to rely on its actors and the inherently devastating nature of its story in order to produce emotion. It dedicates more time to O’Neal’s ties to the FBI than it does to building up and exploring the camaraderie between him and Hampton, and each interaction he has with his superior pulls the film back like a rubber band, constantly reminding us that O’Neal is only playing a part.

Nevertheless, Judas and the Black Messiah hits hard with its ending. Desolating and hopeful at once, it shows that every defeat brings the fuel to go on, but how many more defeats and sacrifices, until the goal is reached and the fighting stops?

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