Judas and the Black Messiah

Part thriller, part biopic, and part historical tragedy this enthralling film features two unforgettable performances and incredible story telling that has a lot to say about the world then and now.

I think it helps to have a little history before stepping into the movie especially if your only experience with the Black Panthers is that one scene in Forrest Gump. Fred Hampton was a charismatic young leader in the Chicago chapter of the BlackPanther party. Their primary function was to provide meals for children, and support for families in the black community. Hampton’s outspoken views landed him the crosshairs of Hoover and the FBI.

The movie tells Hampton’s story from the point of view of Bill O’Neal a small time car thief who gets picked up by the cops and is threatened with serious jail time unless he joins the Black Panthers and becomes an informant for the FBI.

LaKeith Stanfield plays O’Neal as a mass of contradictions and contradictory impulses. He’s pulled in different directions. He admires his FBI handler Mitchell played by Jesse Plemmons, but he also sees real value in the Panthers. Stanfield has been a fascinating actor for years. Here he harnesses all his idiosyncrasies to paint an incredible portrait of this man.

The performance that captured me completely was Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. Holy crap he was amazing. He completely embodies Hampton. His charisma is undeniable, and I was completely entranced the entire time. You never catch him acting in this movie. He simply is Fred Hampton. He deserves all the superlatives. People describe performances are “arresting,” “powerful,” and “stellar” all the time. Kaluuya deserves them all. He’s awesome.

The movie is really incredible the more I think about it. It is intense and suspenseful. It is touching and beautiful. It offers incredible insight into a fascinating chapter in history.

Because the movie isn’t a straightforward biopic, it resists the pitfalls of most biopics. It never tries to canonize its subjects. Hampton and O’Neal are real people with real flaws. It doesn’t try to pretend the ugliness and contradictions didn’t exist in them. It also makes their lives about so much more than just their deaths. Historical biopics often depict their subjects deaths as the most important moments in their lives. By putting Hampton’s ideas and his beliefs at the forefront the movie does a service to his life and legacy.

Finally the movie is entertaining. It’s not a civics lesson or a lecture. It is exciting and challenging and thought provoking. Give this movie a shot. It’s well worth it. It’s streaming on HBO Max.

It’s was definitely my cup of tea. A+

Last note, the title threw me at first. It’s a reference to a J Edgar Hoover memo in which he stated that they had to prevent a “black messiah” from rising up in the black community to unite them.

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