An Unbelievable True Story
Judas and the Black Messiah is the insane, disturbing, sickening true story of the undercover operation against Fred Hampton written and directed by Shaka King starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. For those unfamiliar, Fred Hampton was the chairman of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party during the late 60s. The film chronicles the story of William O'Neal who is blackmailed into acting as an informant for the FBI with Hampton and the Panthers in exchange for avoiding jail time for a crime he commits at the beginning of the film. Once you're in this film, you're IN IT. Propulsive from start to finish, the film is an adrenaline boost; a breathtaking, suspense laden, genuinely tense thrill ride. The film is as punishing as it is impeccably made - it's unforgiving, unrelenting, unbelievable and unforgettable. Let's dive into why you won't want to miss this one.
The acting in the film is top-shelf; Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield both give powerhouse, Oscar-worthy performances in this film. Kaluuya is especially worthy of all the praise he's received of late for his staggering portrayal of Fred Hampton. He is simply mesmerizing to watch and is so captivating whenever he graces the screen with his dominant presence as the titular Black Messiah. LaKeith Stanfield turns in one of the best performances of his career as William O'Neil, the proverbial Judas of the film. He is admittedly outshined by Kaluuya in this film, which is why I had to take this moment to point out his fantastic albeit overlooked performance. It's unlikely he'll gain any Oscar momentum for this, but that doesn't mean he's undeserving by any means. It is a shame he will inevitably be criminally overlooked for this performance as he's an emotional force in this. The outstanding Kaluuya will rightly be praised and lauded for his performance over Stanfield, but LaKeith needs his due for his remarkable work. I could go on and on about the two leads, but the supporting cast is astonishing as well. There is no noticeable weak link in this, and it's notable to point out that Jesse Plemmons turns in a fine performance here as well. The acting doesn't carry this film; not because it isn't truly excellent, but because it doesn't need to. Which brings me to my next point.
The pure cinematic craftsmanship on display here was pure brilliance. This was made by expert filmmakers at the top of their game and it shows in the final product. The writing, direction, editing, cinematography - everything comes together impeccably well and makes for a transcendent cinematic experience. As I mentioned before, the film is so propulsive - the pacing is so remarkably well done. It's impossible to be bored here as so many well crafted scenes are put back-to-back throughout the film's entirety. It's so well paced because something important is always going on - it's incredibly compelling. I was constantly in awe of the film's cinematography - the use of light and shadow, the camera angles and movements, and the framing and close-up shots all were put together so fantastically to tell the story visually and with calculated purpose. There was always such intentionality and calculated deliberation with the choices of shots in any given moment - this pointed to the care and attention put into this film by filmmakers who clearly put their passion into this project. It really shows here. I had not seen a single Shaka King film before and he's now shot up towards the top of my list of directors to watch out for. I was also not surprised to see Ryan Coogler helped Produce this project. It seems anything he puts his hands on turns to gold - and this is no exception.
The Remarkable True Story
Another thing I could not get over is the fact that this is based on a true story. I was audibly distraught throughout the film - I just couldn't help but be dumbfounded and confounded with each and every twist and turn throughout the course of the story. Unsurprisingly, I remained ignorant to this true story for my entire life. I was never taught it in history (I struggle to believe anyone would be taught this in any school) and it's no surprise to me that something like this would be omitted from US history books. No government ever wants to be painted in that sort of light. I simply just could not believe the level of corruption and brutality that was pervasive, allowed, forgotten and/or ignored throughout American history.
To be blunt, and at the risk of spoilers here, this was straight up an all-out war between the Black Panthers, the Chicago police department, and the FBI. Honestly, it's just unreal - it's very hard to imagine this actually happening and even more difficult to watch on-screen. But, you do anyway because it's so compelling and impossible to look away. In any case, what happened to Fred Hampton, the Black Panthers, and the African American community at large is tragic and just sickening, to be frank. And this is not an isolated incident or incidents, this did not exist in a vacuum. What I really appreciated about the boldness and the bravery of telling this story, was that it was told by black filmmakers. This is a story of the black experience in America, and it needs to be told by the right people - and luckily it was. The artists who can actually speak to, and from this experience were the ones behind the artistry and the storytelling. This story demanded to be told, and perhaps just as important: it demands to be seen.
If you couldn't tell, I absolutely loved and adored this film. It's expert filmmaking and top-of-the-line acting on display here is nothing short of mesmerizing. The impossible to believe, but begs to be seen and heard true story here is purely something to behold. Led by astonishing performances by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, the two bring these legendary and infamous characters to life in dazzling ways on the silver screen on their way to telling this remarkable true to life story. I believe that the impeccable craft behind this film, the awards worthy performances, and the tragic yet exceedingly important story make this compulsory viewing for all. The courageous artists who fought and fought to get this story to be made for the big screen demand that this story be told and seen by all of us. And I believe it's our duty to do so, here. So I ask that you seek this one out once it becomes readily available to you. I would also recommend that you bring tissues and healthy coping mechanisms with you.
Painfully Average/run of the mill
How did this get made
Judas and the Black Messiah will see a concurrent streaming and theatrical release starting Friday, February 12th on HBO Max and wherever movie theaters are currently safely open.