Sundance 2021: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Movie Review
“I am a revolutionary.”
These are the famous words of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Behind him and his rallying words, there’s a belief. A desire for all power to the people. A moment of unity that is able to inspire. However, for those in their (abusive) power, it’s threatening. In this growing solidarity for Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and his party, the FBI is prompted to plant an informant in the Black Panther Party. William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), under duress from Agent Mitchell, is chosen as the infiltrator. What follows is one of the most tragic untold stories in American history.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an extraordinary effort of a film. Releasing in a time where racial injustice and inequality is more evident than ever, we see that what has happened this past year is nothing new. Moreover, it’s a struggle that has been happening long before the events of the film. Judas and the Black Messiah personifies this struggle in the medium of film in a way that’s hard to describe. The relevancy and power in these images is something that needs to be seen to be felt. The way the film illuminates and shows what the Black Panther Party was really about is also important. Moreover, showing that the party is’nt just terrorists
Shaka King is the perfect Director for this film. Clearly impassioned for this project, King works with these characters to faithfully re-create what should be important figures of history. For instance, Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) as Fred Hampton is an incredible performance.
The way Kaluuya carries himself in the role, and his commitment to it is very impressive. He delivers the speeches practically verbatim as Hampton would have. His dialect and mannerisms are incredibly engaging, selling you all in on this role. Moreover, the dedication Kaluuya put to researching Hampton is also admirable. Listening to his speeches and reading multiple books on the Black Panther, Kaluuya immersed himself in the role. It pays off, as his turn as the character of Fred Hampton is one of the best I’ve seen.
This performance is only amplified from the performance of Stanfield (Uncut Gems, Sorry to Bother You) as O’Neal. The two are practically polar opposites. William O’Neal is in an almost constant state of paranoia. The way the film deals with the ramifications of the trajectory he’s been set on is fascinating. How do you deal with betraying someone who puts so much of their trust in you? How do you take away the inspiration for change? These are heavy themes that Stanfield has to try and embody. Of course, he is able to do it. Stanfield as O’Neal provides some of the most vivd performances of the film. It’s such a heartbreaking turn for the actor.
Moreover, I would even go so far as to say Stanfield’s portrayal of this titular Judas makes you empathize with William O’Neal. The two main characters are opposite sides of the same coin. Both are pushed and oppressed by reprehensible authorities. The repressive systems of inequality are what drive both of these men to the positions they’re in. It’s an unfortunate representation of what these broken systems we have in place can do.
Jesse Plemons and Dominique Fishback also make some fantastic turns that really help bring everything together. For instance, Fishback as Deborah, Hamptons love interest provide some really intimate moments that make you feel an empathy like no other. If anything, Judas and the Black Messiah is filled to the brim with moments that make you empathize with this constant struggle and makes you reflect about how that struggle still continues today. It is a true testament to the power of the film.
The production value is also unmatched. The sets, wardrobe and overall production design is superb. The cinematography, done by Sean Bobbitt gives the film an old school aesthetic with shot compositions, lighting and framing matching something like that of a biblical epic. Something in the vein of The Ten Commandments meets The Departed. It is filled with both style and substance, something that is rare not just in biopics and true stories but most films as a whole.
The score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris has some truly beautiful Jazz compositions in it. Variations on the main theme are played throughout, giving the music almost a constant narrative thread to hold onto. Every aspect of this film is filled with so much love and dedication I can’t help but fall in love with it.
Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah is a masterpiece. It’s a film that is telling of the struggles people of color had, and continue to have. A reminder of the fundamental flaws of a system that can’t help but try and turn the people against each other. The powerful ending speaks very much true to that. Moreover, even being separate from this piece of history, it’s still an incredible film, with an incredible story. Award winning performances and superb direction make this a film that can’t be missed. It will forever be a reminder of the power of the people. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Grade – 10/10
Judas and the Black Messiah hits theaters and HBO Max February 12th. For continued Sundance 2021 Coverage keep an eye on our Twitter page and this site!