‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ review: a scorching portrait of an exclusively American power struggle

Judas and the Black Messiah is a story about power. It is not just a story about black power, but also about white power, institutional power, and how individuals see themselves (or not) in these larger struggles. Instead of hiding behind interpersonal drama, the director King Shaka and his co-writer Will berson He wisely brings the characters to the fore to emphasize the background of what it means to attempt to seize power in America. There are no sweeteners or hagiographies here, but Judas and the Black Messiah he is able to delve into the nuances of power because he doesn’t care what it means to accumulate followers or fight for a cause. The movie is an effective history lesson, not just because the Black Panthers are a misunderstood movement, but because he’s willing to ask the audience if they’d be willing to fight for something greater than themselves, or if they’re just here for their own. survival.

The story begins in Chicago 1968 where Bill O’Neal (Lakeith stanfield) is arrested for impersonating an FBI agent and stealing a car. When the real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse plemons) asks O’Neal why he didn’t just bother to use a gun, O’Neal replies, “A badge is scarier than a gun.” Mitchell then offers O’Neal a deal: They won’t send him to jail for 6 1/2 years, but in return they want him to join the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and report back to the office about their president, the charismatic and thoughtful Fred. Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whom FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) believes it is a serious threat to the status quo. We then see how Hampton works to accumulate power through the Panthers as O’Neal seeks to sell his inside information to the feds.

LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah

Image via Warner Bros.

While history is generally told through individual stories (for example, the great man historiography of history), King finds the space between the individual and broader social conflicts and raises the question of how we behave in structures of more spacious power. When Hampton uses the Panthers to feed hungry kids or provide free health care, he’s not doing it simply because he’s a good guy. He’s doing it because he consolidates the power of the Panthers in the community. When you approach local gangs or poor whites to create a rainbow coalition, you are building an army because you know there is strength in numbers. Hoover and the bureau represent white supremacy, and they were right to perceive the Panthers as a threat to that supremacy because Hampton knew what he was doing.

One of the most irritating lines in the film comes from Mitchell, who tries to argue with O’Neal that the Black Panthers are just as bad as the Ku Klux Klan, and that there is a right way and a wrong way to achieve equality. While Hoover represents a shameless white supremacy fighting for the status quo, Mitchell presents himself as a benign good guy who is comfortable telling a black man that his equality must be achieved in a certain way in a certain timeline that only a white man can consider it appropriate. That is the power structure that Hampton and the Panthers are fighting, one in which whites can decide when equality and freedom can be provided as a reward rather than what should be inherent in all Americans regardless of their status. race.

In this conflict we have Hampton and O’Neal. Kaluuya is instantly magnetic like Hampton. Even if you’ve never seen footage of the Hampton in real life, you would no doubt believe that this is the “messiah” figure the FBI was so concerned about because he’s smart, engaging, and completely willing to lay down his life. the cause. But rather than simply sculpting a hagiography of Hampton, King wisely chooses to emphasize his private moments with his partner Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). It’s easy to be a freedom fighter if you have nothing to lose, but Hampton’s relationship with Johnson shows the stakes. Part of what makes the “messiah” figure is that he or she is not hampered by personal concerns, but King rejects that and shows that those personal concerns are at the core of the character’s humanity. Hampton wasn’t just a front man who was giving speeches. He was a man who loved and had to be willing to make a sacrifice greater than his own life for the cause in which he believed. When we look at these freedom fighters, we often overlook those left behind, and Judas and the Black Messiah never does that.

That’s due in large part not only to Kaluuya, but also to the endearing and captivating Fishback. If Hampton, O’Neal and the Bureau represent a larger power struggle, then Johnson is the emotional core of the film. At one point, he reads a poem that expresses his hopes and fears for Hampton, and takes the film out of the realm of academics and history and into a level of emotional realism that runs through the rest of the film. Fishback has arguably the toughest job on the scene because he needs to sell his personal stakes in the fight, and he immediately beats us with his strong but smooth performance. Kaluuya benefits from flashy monologues, but her performance is always stronger when she plays Fishback.

Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah

Image via Warner Bros.

Surprisingly, the movie doesn’t want the relationship between Hampton and O’Neal to be at the center of the movie, and that’s a smart move, because if it comes down to interpersonal relationships, the larger power structures at play can be lost. . Hampton and O’Neal are comrades, but it would be a stretch to call them friends or even confidants. There isn’t a single scene where the two share a personal moment beyond fighting for the same cause, and that’s important because of what the movie is doing with O’Neal. It is not about presenting him as a supportive figure, but as someone who ultimately participates for his own survival.

Stanfield is fantastic (as he is in everything he does), but what makes his acting smart is that O’Neal doesn’t seem to understand anything bigger than his own survival. He never really listens to Hampton or considers what he would be willing to sacrifice for a cause bigger than him. There’s nothing bigger than O’Neal for O’Neal, so he has no qualms about not only reporting the Panthers’ activities to the FBI, but also seeing if he can line his own pockets with the information he provides. O’Neal is a bad guy, not because he’s a mustache-twisting villain or even because he broke some close bond, but because he can’t see beyond his own self-interest, and even that self-interest is defined by what the White supremacy tells you that you are allowed to have.

Judas and the Black Messiah It could be considered a part of civil rights history, but it is actually a war movie and it explores how soldiers and civilians see themselves in that war. I saw the movie a week ago, and it still reels in my head because I’ve never seen anything like it with how it tries to find the dramatic tension between factions and individuals in an American landscape. We are so used to our heroes and villains that a movie like Judas and the Black Messiah look beyond the individual actors and see how they belong to a larger struggle that began before they were born and will sadly continue after their death.

Grade: A

Judas and the Black Messiah Poster

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