Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

Props to the Lucas Brothers for choosing to tell this story of Fred Hampton in such a nuanced way.

It would have been easy (and predictable) to approach this script by just lining up a bunch of events like a Wikipedia page. But by choosing to use Bill O'Neal as the vehicle to get us to Fred Hampton -- that's where the creativity lies.

Fred Hampton was a very colossal figure within his community and Illinois. Being able to relate to such a strong figure, for an audience, can be a bit difficult to fully connect to. But someone like Bill, an imperfect and very flawed character, is someone most people can identify with on some level -- if they're honest. Now, that's not to say we all identify as someone who aids in the plot to murder someone (at least I'd hope no one could) but it's to say that the audience can see the predicament O'Neal finds himself in. They can see how this faustian deal could possibly take place and hopefully examine the complexity of the situation. And maybe even learn some things about themselves through that lens.

Anyone who follows my reviews would know that I am a LaKeith Stan(field) [not sorry -- it had to be done]. Casting him as O'Neal is not only brilliant, but vital to making this film work (despite Stanfield initially gunning for the role of Hampton. Again, thank you to those who had a different vision, which ultimately was the best for this project).

Stanfield is such an empathetic actor. He's incredibly expressive while remaining taciturn. It's such an amazing thing to see him do in so many of his performances in films. That qualifies him to be the only person right for this role. Plus, he even resembles the real-life Bill O'Neal. He's absolutely impeccable. I can't rave enough about how fantastic his acting is. Every eye jolt to nervous smile is perfectly paranoid and really sucks you into what he's internally feeling. He even is able to communicate, without words, his regret for what he's gotten himself into. The web of lies he's constantly weaving to people, namely Fred, who put all their trust in him. He never truly can figure out where his allegiances lie and that makes for a very conflicted character that Stanfield makes so heartbreaking and unsettling.

I also love how brilliantly this is communicated through his costumes throughout the film. We don't get a ton of exposition about Bill, but we're told a ton in this nuanced way with his clothing. He's searching for his identity, so once he starts to make more money, it's easy to see when he meets with Mitchell in the restaurant each time where he's at in this journey. He's got flashy clothes and suits trying to fit in with the Feds, and then he's got leather jackets and combat boots trying to be more synonymous with the Panthers. His internal struggles are on display for the audience to view in a tangible way. It's one of the many things I adore about film -- sometimes just seeing something without any words can communicate just enough.

Which brings us to Fred. Daniel Kaluuya is another force to be reckoned with. It's so insane to see these sublime actors and yet they're so young. It's exciting and inspiring to see what they'll do next. Kaluuya has won me over time and time again. I still shiver thinking about his haunting performance in Widows. The man is insanely gifted. Which is what makes his portrayal of Fred Hampton a no-brainer.

He marvelously embodies Hampton because, like Hampton, he is a strong and talented character at such a young age. Hampton was 21 at the time of his murder. That's insane to wrap my head around. Hampton was such a force at such a young age -- imagine what he could've accomplished had he lived?

Forgive my tangents. I'm really just basically thinking out loud here. Kaluuya matches the powerful presence Hampton had in an enormous way. He is the other puzzle piece to making this film work. Where there is the absolute necessity of Stanfield -- there lies Kaluuya as well. They are the majority of what makes the recipe so delicious.

This is obviously a huge debut for Shaka King and I think he also played a huge role in making this film work. I'm intrigued to see what King makes next.

Whatever political view one may have, Judas and the Black Messiah really focuses on the humanity of its characters and does its best to help audiences see the legacy Hampton left. He was more than just a Panther. He brought different communities and backgrounds together. The Rainbow Coalition is an impressive accomplishment by Hampton. He was a powerful orator. He was intense. He was caring. He was determined. He was a man who was willing to die for what he believed. He was devoted to the people, especially of his neighborhood and was/is no doubt a huge influence on modern-day activism. That's made most obvious given his girlfriend and son have continued on with his legacy.

It's so heartbreaking to see how many people have lost their lives within this movement. That is poignantly conveyed in the scene when Hampton goes to visit Mrs. Winters. I didn't need more than two seconds to see her and immediately well up with tears. The heartache weighing on that scene is tremendous. It just drives home the humanity that is at the center of the film.

I would lastly just like to note my love for that scene where we see O'Neal pull up to Leon's Bar with Hampton and the other Black Panther crew in the beginning -- the reflection of the neon sign slowly crawls along the window and ultimately stops on both Hampton and O'Neal's faces. It's such a beautiful shot. ---- Also, the sequence at the end with O'Neal & Mitchell in the restaurant when Mitchell pays O'Neal for his work in assisting the assassination. Seeing just those two bills and a pair of keys as the payment for another man's life screams volumes.

Jesus was viewed by the government as a threat which needed to be neutralized, and Judas sold him out for a few coins. You can see by the wonderful work Stanfield does with just his expressions in this scene, the mirroring of that comparison and how he's being forced to reckon with the devastating betrayal he's inflicted.

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