“Judas and the Black Messiah” Reviewed

When it comes to race, Hollywood has a long and uncomfortable history of romanticizing and oversimplifying American history, often transplanting Black experience into the reductive points of view of white characters. From “Gone with the Wind” to “Green Book,” ostensibly Black-informed stories have too often been whitewashed, wringing out the authenticity, beauty and pain of Black realities.

 

Fortunately, “Judas and the Black Messiah” breaks away from this trend. The historical drama, which focuses on the betrayal of Fred Hampton, a vocal and visible leader in the Black Panther Party, is firmly steeped in the lived-in experience of its Black characters.

 

Fittingly, the story is told from the dual perspective of its titular savior and betrayer: Fred Hampton and FBI informant Bill O’Neal.

 

Daniel Kaluuya, who has emerged as one of the most compelling actors of his generation, embodies Hampton’s Messianic spirit with boundless charisma. The British-born actor leans into the rhythmic cadence of Hampton’s electrifying speeches, oscillating between scenes of public performance and moments of unguarded intimacy in the activist’s personal life.

 

Meanwhile, Lakeith Stanfield quietly electrifies as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, which is, in effect, a performance within a performance. Stanfield conveys masked confidence with a sense of unease crackling just underneath the surface. As he sinks deeper and deeper into a web of conspiratorial blackmail, Stanfield’s O’Neal becomes increasingly unglued. It’s not a showy performance, but it’s an impressive one of quiet paranoia (think: Gene Hackman in “The Conversation”).

 

Shaka King, a relatively unknown filmmaker before this movie, directs with vibrant motion and emotion. King taps into the aesthetic of 70s-period police procedurals while injecting a sense of modern-day urgency through fluid camerawork and perceptive POV shots.

 

King tests his filmmaking mettle in one of the film’s first scenes, slyly using an over-the-shoulder tracking shot to follow a carjacking attempt by O’Neal, who lifts vehicles under the guise of a federal agent. King blocks the action to obstruct O’Neal’s face until the big reveal, effectively planting the viewer in the middle of the action (and, indeed, on the receiving end of O’Neal’s actions).

 

From there, King stays his directorial grip, always foregrounding the action against the era’s hostile political backdrop. So-called “action sequences” are executed with calculating and astonishing precision, but with none of the histrionics of action movies and all of the horror of real-life bloodshed.

 

Unlike past Hollywood productions about race in America, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is not a comfortable watch, but it is a necessary one. The film is harrowing in its depiction of racism and violence, but its lasting impression will surely be in its depiction of Hampton’s incredibly short but impactful life — a life that, for too long, had been shut out of American history books and, yes, American movies.

 

— Clinton Olsasky