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Sundance 2021 Review: 'Judas and the Black Messiah' is magnetic

Shaka King's feature-directorial debut may just shake up and revitalize a movement

Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King
(Image: © Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.)

Our Verdict

Before the film even reaches the halfway point, there'll be in no doubt why 'Judas and the Black Messiah' is a double Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee.

For

  • ▪️Magnetic storytelling.
  • ▪️Outstanding performances.
  • ▪️Dynamic sound production.

Against

  • ▪️Slightly underdeveloped historical references.
  • ▪️Slight exposition heavy.

Judas and the Black Messiah is part of our Sundance Film Festival coverage. You can find all of our reviews here

Judas and the Black Messiah is a gut wrenchingly intense journey into the web of conspiracies that led to the assassination Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) at the age of twenty-one. Shaka King's feature-directorial debut embraces the grit and grift of a crime thriller to expose a traitor and divulge the sordid machinations of a government intent on keeping its foot on the necks of Black people no matter the means...or the cost. At this point in history, the FBI's COINTELPRO initiative is no longer a secret; and if you ask most Black people, it never was. For those still living that "the cops are totally trustworthy life," a quick primer:

You can kill the revolutionary but you can't kill the revolution.

Fred Hampton

COINTELPRO started in 1956 with the purpose of disrupting Communist Party "activities" on US soil. In the 60s, however, J. Edgar Hoover extended the program to include domestic groups and citizens he considered dangerous; like the Black Panthers Party for Self-Defense (Black Panthers). In an official memo, Hoover described the Black Panthers as "the greatest threat to internal security of the country." Hoover instigated what the Bureau called "endeavor[s] to expose, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize" against the Black Panthers nationwide.

So, it's hardly surprising to learn that once the agency noticed Fred Hampton, the young charismatic leader of the Black Panthers' Illinois chapter, making rousing speeches and effectively rallying the city's marginalized communities into a coalition, he found himself in Hoover's crosshairs...literally.

Judas and the Black Messiah shuns the traditional biopic format and instead adopts the suspenseful driving pace of a noir-style thriller. Everything from the sound production, song selection, costumes and color palette work in concert to turn back time and bring the city of Chicago to life. Giving over to narrative's rhythm and flow is easy. In short order—and in a character-revealing fashion—audiences meet William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and witness a seedy encounter between him and FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). With precise crafting, King's direction lays the groundwork for an intense conflict built around Fred Hampton and set to delve into the meat of the treachery about to play out with care. 

Stanfield's adroit portrayal of O'Neal slowly reveals (thankfully, showing rather than telling) an unsettling portrait of a man who lacks a shred of integrity. From his frequently hunched shoulders to his constantly shifting gaze, Stanfield's O'Neal is  the kind of man strictly out to cover his own ass. It's a marriage of perfect casting (no shade intended) and direction resulting in a performance by Stanfield that can be best described as award-worthy. 

We first meet a self-possessed - and fiercely committed - Fred Hampton at college. The difference between the direction he's chosen for his life and to how O'Neal lives couldn't be more apparent. It only grows more so as their relationship evolves and deepens. Meeting Hampton as he begins to move with purpose naturally leads to peering into the inner workings of the close-knit group of loyalists in the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. This supporting cast of characters is a mix of volatile personalities that also necessary add depth and perspective to this story. The end result is a more authentic presentation of the Black Panthers community involvement and activism in a more authentic looking, and feeling, Chicago. For all the fervor and magnetic speeches on display, this part of the storyline is what makes O'Neal's charade that much harder to watch unfold. 

King dovetails this silent byplay on what lies at the heart of each man into the insidiousness of the COINTELPRO operation in the works. So, even as the plot develops and the players fall into place, there's an ever-growing sense of foreboding underlying it all. These twin story arcs subtly drives home the fact that viewers are witnessing a life (and movement) deliberately being destroyed.  

In the current climate, it's a risky move to choose to fold Fred Hampton into a much larger storyline rather than making a biopic about the man and his legacy. But the reality of COINTELPRO and Fred Hampton are inextricably linked. So, marrying the two in a film, in no way shortchanges the legacy of Fred Hampton or fails to bring the man into proper focus. In fact, it's vital to shine a light on this as well as on Hampton’s more contemplative and sensitive side as he meets and becomes involved with fellow activist and Panther, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). These moments not only inject timely bits of humor and lightness into the mix they keep the film's tone from becoming too grim.

Plus, the sheer forcefulness of Daniel Kaluuya portrayal of Fred Hampton pulses with a soulful conviction and vibrancy. His presence is undeniable and makes his every onscreen moment positively magnetic. It should also be noted that Fishback is sharp and savvy as Johnson. She imbues the part with an understated grace that kept what could've been a minor character from fading too far into the background. The quiet strength to the chemistry between the two does more to illustrate how profound a loss and how large a still hole remains in the lives of those left to continue than anything else could. In fact, all the collective performances come together to make it impossible to not see Fred Hampton and see through the propaganda promulgated about many Black activists. 

If Judas and the Black Messiah has a weakness, it's in the story arc that revolves around the off-screen dismantling of the Black Panthers. The plot progression relies heavily on assumed knowledge about prominent members of the Black Panthers. There are clear allusions to other campaigns and dirty plots in action . But the storyline does little to ground its audience in place and time by providing many details. The film's intended audience knows; everyone else is free to catch up. 

This narrative design is bold. It's also one that leaves space for a coherent account but avoids edging into the type of storytelling that feels like trauma porn. It's refreshing to move through a storyline with historical contacts that actually center Black people rather than just showcasing their pain. King accomplishes his task by honoring and embracing the legacy of Fred Hampton without compromising.

From beginning to end, this talented ensemble bring this world to life, turning in astounding performances that fully articulate a necessary and timely call to action. Getting invested in this the plot is the easy part. Reconciling exactly how the struggle for fair treatment and freedom for Black people seems to be backsliding, however, is certain to take more time (and possibly therapy). Prepare to meet a folk hero worthy of the praise he receives but keep in mind going in that Judas and the Black Messiah is far more than just a biopic-style hat-tip to Fred Hampton. It's a skillful rebuke, a heartfelt lamentation, and a harrowing reminder that all skin folk, ain't kinfolk.