Justin Peterson’s review published on Letterboxd:
Going into Judas and the Black Messiah I had the feeling that the biblical association with the title might have some slight hyperbole to it, but it was chilling to experience how spot on it actually was.
"I am a revolutionary!"
Not having much knowledge of The Black Panther party I was very intrigued to get a view into their world during the turbulent 60s and 70s. Essentially Director Shaka King's excellent sophomore film is an inverse version of what we saw from Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman', where law enforcement infiltrated a racially charged group from that era. But this film also has the feel of 'The Departed' mixed in, with tensions growing high about the informant aka rat being sniffed out, and what would happen to them.
"Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed."
(Quick Hits) ... Spoilers:
- The hype is for real when it comes to the fantastic performances here from Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback, LaKeith Stanfield, and Jesse Plemons
- Is there a requirement that they have to go way overboard on the makeup for actors playing J. Edgar Hoover. Plus it was good to see the other side of the coin of that controversial figure, compared to what we saw in Clint Eastwood's biopic
- With the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years, I appreciate that we are getting more acclaimed films highlighting what the struggle has been like for black Americans over the decades. So people from all walks of life can get just a sense of what that has been like. On that note, the violence and police brutality in the film was especially poignant, and even caused me to both tense up and get emotional at times
- In the story, we meet Bill O'Neal played by Stanfield who has to infiltrate The Black Panthers of the Chicago area, in order to avoid jail time. We get a great sense of his character arc throughout as he starts out indifferent to the cause and is just glad to be getting a solid paycheck and Government provided vehicle. But his obligation to them really wears on him as time progresses, as he becomes committed to the Panthers, while the FBI begins to treat him as less of a person and more as a chess piece. There being no way back for him ultimately leaves Bill in the position of Judas
- The Black Messiah of the story is Fred Hampton played by Kaluuya. It was nice getting to watch this with subtitles, otherwise I would have missed out on a lot of what he says due to his strong accent
- Fred is shown to have a level of charisma that is essential for all great leaders. What he says is not necessarily profound, but he delivers a simple message of unity and strength in numbers against an oppressor in a very effective way that easily gets crowds on his side
"Anywhere there is people, there is power."
- The part that especially makes him Christ-like was his desire to unite people. I had no idea there were other groups similar to The Black Panthers at that time, and it was fascinating to see Fred try to bring them together and take down the propaganda law enforcement was apparently using to keep them divided
- Fred is even shown teaming up with a white oppressed group, and the controversy of the confederate flag gets addressed with the film showing both sides of that argument in a concise honest way
- In 'The Last Temptation of Christ' we see a version of Jesus that calls for the people to rise above their oppressors, but then changes direction and calls for peace. we see a similar contradiction depicted through Fred who calls for pigs aka cops to be killed. But when someone presents him with a plan to commit an act of terror and actually take those lives, he wants nothing to do with it
- While I came to this film for the political aspect, I also enjoyed watching the tender romantic dynamic between Hampton and his partner Deborah played by Fishback
- A more subtle but equally as intriguing character arc is that of FBI Agent Roy Mitchell played by Plemons. I think his character truly befriends Bill in the beginning. But he begins to make it less personal as time goes on when he finds out about the other rats in play, and when Hoover talks with him directly about the kind of prejudiced feelings that drove him
- I have also heard praise about how the film was shot. But the only scenes that stood out to me included a cool shot we get from the perspective of the back seat of Bill's car, and how the church rally was composed
- I liked the interview footage we get of Bill, and I wish more of that would have been used throughout. Since all that did not fully come together for me until they showed footage of the real Bill at the end
- It is crazy to hear the details of Fred's assassination, and makes you wonder what other hits have been sanctioned by the US Government over the years
- Towards the end, I wished we were still watching that fiery revolutionary passion from Fred, but I suppose his time in jail and having a baby on the way played a part in his more low-key approach. It makes me wonder what would have happened if he would have fled the country like his friends were encouraging him to do
Overall Judas and the Black Messiah was an extremely compelling character study of Fred Hampton's time leading The Black Panthers in Chicago. And just a glimpse of what Bill O'Neal must have experienced playing the role of Judas by becoming a Panther, believing in them, working against them, and then eventually following through with betraying them.
Thanks for reading!
Happy movie watching ... Cheers!