Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

Judas and the Black Messiah is a very ambitious film. It tries to be a biopic of its two subjects, Fred Hampton and Bill O'Neal, while also being an espionage thriller. It also strives to inform the audience about COINTELPRO, the awful FBI program where they tried to dismantle minority and liberal/socialist groups through the use of propaganda, police brutality and even assassination. Is the film able to succeed at all of these goals? Mostly yes, though some aspects do fall short.

The film is most successful as a biopic of Fred Hampton. Kaluuya's brilliant performance helps develop the figure as a human, one with a fire in their hearts, as well as a real sense of vulnerability. He is very believable as a man who could stoke passion in anybody he spoke to, as well as fear in those he was opposed to. However, Kaluuya and the script never lose sight of the fact that Hampton was a human, one with hopes, fears and desires of his own.

Lakeith Stanfield's performance as Bill O'Neal is equally excellent, though perhaps less well served by the script. Stanfield sells the conflict of the FBI informant, somebody who enjoyed the benefits of working for the government, while also generally agreeing with Hampton's words. It's not always clear whether the script sees O'Neal as a cowardly traitor or a believer who was in over his head, but Stanfield's performance goes a long way to making the conflict work. This slightly holds back the thriller aspect of the film though, as the audience confusion over where O'Neil's loyalties lie each moment occasionally keeps the tension from properly.

The film is very successful in terms of depicting the political and moral conflicts between the Black Panthers and the FBI. There is a fascinating parallel on both sides, as the primary figures of each group, Hampton and Jesse Plemons' Agent Roy Mitchell, are more moderate figures who represent people who go to greater extremes. Though Hampton preaches the use of violence and revolution as a necessary measure of self defense, he himself tries to avoid it when possible. That said, the film doesn't shy away from the fact that some of the panthers seek violence out, usually to disastrous effect. Mitchell, meanwhile, is wisely depicted as somebody who sees themselves as not being racist. This is an important development, as it serves to remind the viewer that one can be complicit in oppression without being a fanatic. Of course, the film most prominently identifies with the Panthers, whose anger is justified by the sheer mass brutality and violence they face from the government every single day, but the film's decision to explore the moral shades of grey on either side is an effective one.

Overall, this is a powerful, well made and incredibly effective film, albeit one that occasionally feels crushed under the weight of its own ambition. Nonetheless, it serves as a fantastic showcase of the talents of Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, as well as a powerhouse sophomore feature for director Shaka King

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