Judas and the Black Messiah: Filmnetic Review

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It’s beginning to feel as though every year, a new great film comes along that has the ability to break records and make history. This year, one of the films that has the potential to do so is Judas and the Black Messiah. Having already received recognition at many of the major film award ceremonies, its Oscar nominations only seemed right. Just by being nominated for Best Motion Picture, the film has already made history as the first film with an all-black production team to be nominated in the category. 

Director Shaka King joined forces with Will Berson and twins, Keith and Kenneth Lucas, to bring to light the real story of the man behind the Chicago Black Panther Party movement, Chairman Fred Hampton. However, in choosing Chairman Fred as a focal point of the film, they were also able to tackle the circumstances that brought about his assassination. Judas and the Black Messiah paid homage to a man that lived his life for the revolution and who left behind a legacy that lives on today. 

Biopics of this nature require careful casting as the actors will be bringing to life the spirit of very real people and their stories. Judas and the Black Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton, LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, Jesse Plemons as FBI Agent Roy Mitchell and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson. Chairman Fred’s influence extended far beyond the city of Chicago. This made it possible for not only the people close to him (Jimmy Palmer, Jake Winters, Bobby Rush and Judy Harmon) to be represented in the film, but characters like J. Edgar Hoover, who was the director of the FBI at the time, also made an appearance in the film. 

Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah

For those who are unfamiliar with the life of Fred Hampton, he was an American revolutionary best known for his work as the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. His work in the Chicago community gained him national recognition before he was assassinated in 1969 at just 21 years old. There are a lot of conspiracies and speculations about his death, but the writers and directors make it very clear that the focus of this film is the life he lived. 

The film begins in 1968, much like its fellow Best Motion Picture nominee, The Trial of The Chicago 7, and immediately draws your focus to Bill O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield). O’Neal is a car thief who is enlisted by Agent Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons) to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and get close to the chairman. In the beginning, O’Neal comes across as indifferent to the movement and is comfortable with bringing the information about the party’s behaviors to Agent Mitchell. But as he sinks deeper into the movement, that changes. 

The film follows O’Neal through his journey in becoming a part of the revolution and that’s how the audience gets to gain a better understanding of what the Black Panther Party was all about. We learn along with him and become attached to the story and its characters, which makes his betrayal so much more poignant. Stanfield was driven to portray O’Neal in a way where the audience saw him as more than just a villain. 

Betraying a movement that is meant to uplift your community and bring about change in a world that so clearly needs it will rightfully elicit a full range of emotions. Stanfield was able to capture that not only in his facial expressions and posturing but deep within his eyes. In the same way he could portray the standard emotions of happiness and sadness, he also gave anxiety, regret, and frustration with the simple build-up of tears or quick flash around the room. It’s something you can easily get lost in and will have you feeding off the tension it creates in all of his big scenes. Stanfield skillfully showed the internal battle his character was facing concerning the role he was playing in the sabotage of the Black Panther Party and the downfall of Hampton. This coupled with Plemons portrayal as a complacent FBI agent being used to execute FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta against the chairman was not only realistic but interesting to watch play out. 

Dominique Fishback describes herself as a romantic and you can see how much of that she brought to her role as Deborah Johnson. While staying true to the role Johnson played in the Chicago Black Panther Party, Fishback added a romantic depth to her already poetic character. She took special care in bringing the romance between Deborah and Fred to life in a way that was authentic to the real love between the two. As her character was a poet, she too wrote poems as her character throughout the shooting of the film to really capture her energy and spirit. One poem was even used in the final cut of the film and created an electric moment that was not only beautiful and eloquent but also tragic because of what happened soon thereafter.

Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah

While the supporting characters of the film were well played in their own right, Judas and the Black Messiah would have likely been a very different movie without Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. The power he brought to life as the Black Panther chairman was not unexpected but was enrapturing nevertheless. While yes this was an interpretation of Hampton’s story through facts, Kaluuya clearly worked hard to portray the very essence of his character through every speech, movement, emotion, and decision that was conveyed.

Kaluuya openly speaks about how his preparation for the role included taking up many of the same habits and activities of the real Fred Hampton. He wanted to be able to understand who he was and how his mind worked in order to draw from his spirit rather than just play a version of him. The importance of the role and the importance of the story was not lost on Kaluuya and you can feel that through the entirety of the film. There was nothing done that felt like its sole purpose was to add shock factor. It felt real which only amplified the emotions the story elicited.

Judas and the Black Messiah is the first studio film in 15 years to focus on the Black Panther Party and movement and expectations were high. Thankfully, these expectations were met with a realistic yet dramatized representation of the events that occurred during Hampton’s time as the Illinois chairman. An interesting choice that was made in terms of angling was to tell the story of the Black Panther Movement through the lives of the people involved rather than through the actions they took in fueling a revolution.

The history of the Black Panthers has not been erased but rather omitted from most education systems in America. The stories about the actions and motivations of the Black Panthers have also been muddled by the perception of those writing them and this film is a chance to break away from that. It shows the real work that the real people were putting in every day which in turn showed their true impact on the community and the purpose of the movement. This also exposed why they were seen as such a threat to many of those in power who were trying to preserve the way of life they had become so comfortable in.        

Like many biopics, the acting is what has really thrust the film into the spotlight but its writing, cinematography and score gave it the legs it needed. All of the elements put together made it easy to get lost in the story because it looked, felt and sounded real. For that reason, it’s no surprise that Judas and the Black Messiah has received over 50 nominations, most of which recognize the acting done by Kaluuya, Fishback and Stanfield, along with its music, original screenplay and cinematography. The execution was well done across the board and while the film has already received over 30 award wins, with nominations in five Oscar categories, there is little doubt it won’t be taking home at least one more win before the award season comes to an end.

Filmnetic Grade: A

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