Judas and the Black Messiah can be incredibly gripping at times, but the narrative downplays the Hampton and O’Neal stories to their detriment.
Despite being a radical voice in the Black Panther Party, someone who spent his life uniting the oppressed and fighting to bring down racist structures, Fred Hampton is more of a supporting character in a story that should have been entirely about him. Judas and the Black Messiah, a film that follows the events leading up to Hampton’s murder in 1969, is brought to life by director Shaka King, who also co-wrote the script with Will Berson (with a story by Kenneth and Keith Lucas). While the film has incredibly powerful moments that showcase Hampton’s electric appeal and radical activism, the decision to view his life through the lens of Bill O’Neal, the Judas of history, weakens the film’s overall strength. . Judas and the Black Messiah It can be incredibly gripping at times, but the narrative downplays the Hampton and O’Neal stories to their detriment.
The film opens with archival footage of Fred Hampton (played by a stunning Daniel Kaluuya), the president of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and the eventual founder of the Rainbow Coalition, under which Hampton sought to unite various groups to fight against the oppression. Hampton is labeled a threat in 1967 by the FBI, with director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) imploring his agents that Hampton must be detained lest he become too influential a figure. In short, Hoover wants to defend the white supremacist system at all costs. This prompts Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to recruit Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty thief who claims not to pay attention to politics.
With O’Neal successfully placed within the Black Panther Party, first as Hampton’s driver and then as head of security, the audience witnesses Hampton’s life, from his relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) to his passionate speeches and grassroots activism. from the perspective of the man who would ultimately betray him. It’s an odd choice, especially when Hampton, a not as well known historical figure as Malcolm X, could have been at the forefront. Judas and the Black Messiah He starts off strong enough, but his initial energy, one that sizzled with promise, is wasted by his lack of focus. When Hampton de Kaluuya is at heart, the film shoots up, with the actor able to carry the weaker aspects of the script with his charisma and intensity. Meanwhile, Stanfield plays O’Neal with somewhat uncomfortable uncertainty, caught in the throes of his lies and the looming threat from the FBI.
And yet King refrains from exploring both characters’ humanity, their complexities, and the effect of Hampton’s activism on the community. On that front Judas and the Black Messiah it is more of a superficial representation of both men, lacking the interiority and depth necessary to focus them more clearly. This is especially true of O’Neal, who is not developed enough to bear the weight of the story on his own. Considering that he is the character through which the audience has access to Hampton, the script doesn’t do enough to land him before diving headfirst into the story.
What’s more, the film barely touches on the FBI’s sinister plot to ensure Hampton’s disappearance at all costs. It’s almost as if the two are separated at times, with Judas and the Black Messiah do not explore atrocities with little more than cold detachment. O’Neal’s relationship with Agent Mitchell is interesting to say the least, with O’Neal revealing (in a recreated interview from Eyes on the prize) who saw Mitchell as a kind of mentor. However, even that is barely displayed on the screen.
Judas and the Black Messiah it fails to convey the full scope of Hampton’s politics or his appeal as a person. By centering O’Neal as the protagonist and not doing the work to develop him or the full scope of his motivations, the film falters and never reaches the heights of its potential. The movie has its fair share of heady and gripping moments and seeing Kaluuya as Hampton is visceral and empowering. Unfortunately, the story never seems to get out of its own way enough to flourish, nor does it explore the complexities necessary to emphasize and humanize the characters in the way it should.
Judas and the Black Messiah It is now showing in theaters and available to stream on HBO Max. The film is 126 minutes long and is rated R for violence and penetrating language.
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- Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)Release date: February 12, 2021
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