KUNR Entertainment Reviewer Robin Holabird says the new film Judas and the Black Messiah uses strong storytelling to create a powerful drama.
Real events provide powerful dramatic elements for Judas and the Black Messiah. Given that title, biblical issues erupt when a traitor insinuates himself into a group headed by a charismatic leader.
The title’s messiah refers to Fred Hampton, a late 1960s Black Panthers leader whose goals for racial equity terrified F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover. Judas comes in the form of William O’Neal, a petty thief who avoids jail time by going undercover as an F.B.I informant.
The real-life play of characters provides the same kind of gripping drama found in fiction like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Other action enhances points made in The Trial of the Chicago Seven, whose real-life events occurred at the same time in the same city amid heightened racial tensions. But, Judas and the Black Messiah stands on its own as powerful drama, clearly presenting sides to the story that never reached mass media at the time.
More recent analyses show misinterpretations by the F.B.I. Additional research reveals a warmer view of the Panthers, whose work included community-based help programs such as providing food for their neighborhoods. Contradictory memories combined with controversial issues mean that any fact-based feature faces questions and criticism. Added to this, plenty of people never heard the story of Fred Hampton so [they] have little background for forming an opinion.
This unfamiliarity leads Writer/Director Shaka King to rely on storytelling basics involving suspense, intrigue, and the strong personalities involved. King shows Hampton as a dedicated freedom fighter whose captivating intensity inspired listeners to take action rather than simply nod and hope someone else followed through. Such magnetism seems an inborn gift, one that actor Daniel Kaluuya exudes with the explosiveness of blazing fireworks. The Oscar-nominated star of Get Out, Kaluuya once again proves a forceful presence, effectively conveying Hampton’s impact on people.
Get Out alum Lakeith Stanfield works an effective counterpoint to Kaluuya, moving with an ease that seems like the instinctive way a newcomer could insinuate himself into a tight-knit organization. Likeable and easy going, Stanfield generates sympathy for a character whose deeds deserve no respect. Such contradictions of human strengths and weaknesses infuse the project, making Judas and the Black Messiah a hugely relevant work in any era. The movie opened in theaters and streams on HBO Max.
Robin Holabird is KUNR's entertainment reviewer, author, and former film commissioner for the Nevada Film Office.