My Review of Shaka King’s JUDAS & THE BLACK MESSIAH

****BEFORE I GO INTO THIS, I SUPPOSE I WILL WARN YOU THAT I AM VERY CANDID ABOUT CERTAIN PLOTPOINTS BUT CONSIDERING THIS IS A TRUE STORY, I DON’T THINK A SPOILER WARNING IS REALLY NECESSARY****

In 2017, we had a rather interesting occurrence with two of the movies competing for Best Picture. DUNKIRK revolved around the titular evacuation of Allied Forces from the North of France while DARKEST HOUR featured a lot of that same storyline but from the side of then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

This past year, we saw Aaron Sorkin’s THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 which focused on…well…the trial of those people (haha…) and how they crossed state lines with the supposed intention of inciting violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In that movie, we hear of the murder of Illinois Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton via fellow Black Panther member Bobby Seale who is, briefly, the 8th member of the charges in that film until he ends up getting dismissed as a mistrial (after Judge Hoffman bounds and gags him for being in contempt of court…which, for the record, went on for DAYS and not just a few minutes like that film depicted).

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So, in a way, you could argue that JUDAS & THE BLACK MESSIAH is something of a companion piece to THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 due to how it goes into the Black Panthers and how a man by the name of William O’Neill became an informant for the FBI in their quest to end Fred Hampton.

However…there is a major difference between the two films.

CHICAGO 7 obviously has a script that can be attributed to Sorkin: the crackling dialogue, the wit, the sort of sanctimonious tone…and there is no doubt that it is a fairly well made and solid film with solid acting.

JUDAS, on the other hand, is bolder and more brash. It is relentless and unforgiving and holds no punches with how it presents the true villains of the piece: the FBI. A film like CHICAGO 7 felt very milquetoast by comparison with its more centrist/liberal leanings whereas JUDAS goes into the leftist/socialist world of the Black Panther Party…and to top it all off, it is was directed and co-written by Shaka King.

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KING (right) with actor Daniel Kaluuya

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of Shaka King; I also hadn’t heard of him. This is essentially his big break after making a little seen film called NEWLYWEDS back in 2013 and some short films. After seeing JUDAS, I really hope we haven’t seen the last of him. He shows such confidence and flair as a director and also managed to write a truly great script with his co-writer Will Berson who, also for the record, is getting his first writing credit with this film. It is simply remarkable and it goes to show you that some people just have the ability to wow you right off the bat.

So to briefly go into the synopsis, as I mentioned above, a grifter by the name of William O’Neill (Lakeith Stanfield) is using a fake badge to pose a cop to con people and steal their cars. When he is caught by an actual cop after something of a botched attempt, he is then accosted by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who tells him that he is facing close to 7 years in prison for his crimes but offers him a proposition to avoid jail: act as an informant for the FBI and infiltrate the Black Panther Party with the goal of taking down Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and fulfill the hopes of the lecherous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).

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Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neill

With this all in place, we watch O’Neill slowly morph into this world and thanks to the work of Stanfield, there are times where we aren’t quite sure if his loyalties are beginning to lie with Hampton or if he is simply a good actor. In a cheeky bit of symmetry, Plemons’ character of Roy even states that he is unsure of whether O’Neill is changing sides or if he is simply worthy of an Academy Award. I do think Stanfield does a great job with a truly difficult role and that he would be worthy of recognition but sadly the Lead Actor lineup is incredibly stacked this year and the precursor awards haven’t been going his way even in terms of just nominations so I don’t suspect that will happen for him.

Nevertheless, I do want to stress that Stanfield’s success in the role is crucial to the film. There were even moments where I got so caught up in various moments that I would forget that he wasn’t truly a part of this group because he was simply that good at playing up that he was more than just “a rat”…and he even manages to sneak his way out of a potentially deadly moment when other members of the Black Panther party corner him at one point thanks to pure dumb luck.

Stanfield does share a lot of scenes with Jesse Plemons, whom I do want to take a moment to discuss.

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PLEMONS (right) with Stanfield

Plemons has to be one of the most interesting actors working today. I appreciate him so much because he has no fear or reservations about the roles he takes. A lot of his success first began when he played the vile and evil Todd during the final season of BREAKING BAD. It was a performance, if I may stretch for a moment, that made me think of Ralph Fiennes in SCHINDLER’S LIST if only for the fact that the character he played was so disgusting that it is crazy to think one could see him as anything else beyond that.

Plemons loves playing off-beat and rather immoral characters and also managed to take that kind of character to a comedic level in a movie like GAME NIGHT in which he stole every scene he was in. He does very well with this role as the kind of guy who will claim he isn’t racist but is so eager to label the Black Panther Party is equals to the Ku Klux Klan. There are shimmers in him that he may not be ALL bad…but in the end, he is still one of “the pigs”.

There is a strong chance that we might be witnessing this year’s Supporting Actor winner within this film…and that brings me to the fellow pictured below: Daniel Kaluuya, whom most will probably remember from Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER and particularly his stellar work in his breakthrough role in GET OUT.

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From the moment that the first trailer was released, most of the Film Twitter-verse exploded with immense excitement over Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and he does greatly live up to the hype. You could even argue that he is co-lead with Stanfield but in the end, it wouldn’t be the most egregious form of category fraud. Stanfield is definitely the driving force and despite Kaluuya having scenes on his own, the film certainly keeps him somewhat at a distance at times (and he is missing for certain portions, including for a period where they send him to prison on a trumped up charge). You could even argue that the distance aspect is crucial because it gives Kaluuya more of a vibe as if he could even be some sort of barely attainable God…which could tie into the whole concept of the Messiah and the Judas that betrays him.

Kaluuya gives a performance that might not unexpected in terms of Oscar contenders. Voters often love big and bold performances and Kaluuya gets to deliver passionate and heated speeches….and damn, he does a fantastic job with them. He does have a lot of wonderful subtle moments, too…particularly the scenes he shares with his love interest Deb, played by Dominique Fishback.

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Dominique Fishback as Deborah

I wasn’t as familiar with Fishback but I realized when researching her that she had appeared in the very good but little seen HBO miniseries SHOW ME A HERO that was written by THE WIRE’s David Simon. She has acted in a few projects over the last few years but I think this role could be another breakthrough for her. She was receiving Oscar buzz but so far it hasn’t translated to any nominations at other precursors. Truthfully, her role isn’t that big but she has a lot of wonderful moments and frankly, her presence in this film is truly wonderful. I would gladly support a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her and I hope that we see more from her very soon.

So with getting the synopsis and key performances out of the way, I want to try to express what the film made me feel and why I think it is incredibly important viewing for everyone.

2020 had been a truly horrible year in many, many ways. With the protests/riots that began after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and COUNTLESS others at the hands of police officers, there is no denying that JUDAS taps into this and it feels sadly relevant. The problem with a movie like TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 was it didn’t feel bold enough plus:

**SPOILER ALERT for CHICAGO 7**

-The ending in the courtroom where Tom Hayden begins reading off the list of people who died in Vietnam while the music swells and people cheer and Judge Hoffman is banging his gavel in overdramatic defiance leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It was mawkish and hokey and sort of felt forced and oddly pitched…nor did it happen in that way in real life. It was simply a Hollywood ending at the most cliched extreme.

**END OF CHICAGO 7 SPOILER**

I felt like JUDAS didn’t want to hold our hands in any way. I also appreciated that it made it abundantly clear that the cops/FBI are the problem and that it had no issue with putting forth a leftist/socialist message which is obviously not something that a lot of Hollywood ever latches onto.

JUDAS made me feel uncomfortable towards the end when we watch the raid occur and we know that Hampton’s life is about to come to an end….and that uncomfortable feeling was soon matched with anger. The fact that this even occurred is appalling but this kind of thing has happened time and time again and we’ve all watched it happen in such brutal ways this past year while those cops treat it as if these people’s lives are nothing.

I have been livid and angry…and then the response by the various police unions and also those who latch onto fighting the entire meaning of the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement shows that we still have a long way to go and, unfortunately, we haven’t truly moved much for the past 50 years.

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JUDAS & THE BLACK MESSIAH is not here to play around. It tells the story it wants to tell without succumbing to any of the truly insufferable Hollywood tropes and still manages to enthrall and captivate.

It is easily one of the top 3 films of the year that I have seen thus far…and frankly, it might even be THE best for me as of this moment.

A true powerhouse.

RATING (out of 5 stars)

**** 1/2 (A)

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