Judas and the Black Messiah, from director Shaka King (Newlyweeds), showed at the Sundance Film Festival last night and did not disappoint. 

Sundance Film Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

Film Reviews

Judas and the Black Messiah 
Director: Shaka King

Warner Brothers
Premiere: 02.01, 7:00 p.m.

“Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.” – Mao Zedong

Judas and the Black Messiah, the much-anticipated and heavily hyped new film from director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) showed at the Sundance Film Festival last night, and it did not disappoint. 

Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton, portrayed here by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to label  him a terrorist threat and to plant informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You, Knives Out) to infiltrate the party. Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiracy against him,  but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal, highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles.

King’s direction is slick and precise in a way that recalls Martin Scorsese, but its imbued with the quality of inspiration that comes with passion and a feeling of urgency to tell this story, one that couldn’t possibly feel more disturbingly timley. Kaluuya is superb, throwing himself into the role with an intense level of commitment, and it’s a stunning transformation and embodiment of a legendary individual. But while everybody loves Jesus, let’s face it, Judas is the far more interesting character, and Stanfield gives a mesmerizing performance that must be recognized and elevates him to a whole new level.

O’Neal is a petty criminal who is arrested for impersonating a federal officer, a ruse he uses to steal cars, explaining to an FBI agent played by Jesse Plemmons that, “A badge is scarier than a gun. Any n*gga can get a gun, but with a badge it’s like you got a whole army behind you,” a line that speaks volumes about the power that police have to intimidate, and in many cases, to abuse and terrorize. This boldness and knack for looking out for number one is what makes O’Neal a perfect mole, but he is drawn into both the cause and Fred’s energizing vision. The film portrays O’Neall as far more conflicted than he ever portrayed himself, but it’s more than merely an appropriate artistic liberty—it’s a portrayal the lines up with the statements of others and with O’Neal’s own tragic actions. Plemmons (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) is brilliant in an enigmatic role, and Martin Sheen‘s chilling portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover recalls more than one contemporary political figure.

Dominique Fishback provides some of the most emotional moments as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s frightened but determined life partner, who is carrying his child and whose bravery in the face of the gathering storm may be the most inspirational of all. But Lil Rel Howery’s scene-stealing extended cameo was the biggest surprise in the film for me.

There’s so much to absorb in Judas and the Black Messiah that I feel that it’s going to require multiple viewings, but there’s no question that its a major Oscar contender with the potential to be a game changer. It’s also a must see for anyone trying to understand the state of race relations here in America, and perhaps an even bigger one for anyone who doesn’t want to understand. –Patrick Gibbs