Any movie chronicling aspects of the Black Panther Party is a welcome site to see, since even today all some people know about this organization stems from FBI propaganda. And while throughout the 1960’s and 70’s they had many prominent leaders, the best way to tell the story of the true potential of the Black Panthers is by telling the story of Chairman Fred Hampton. A man who sought to liberate all people, worldwide.
That said, this is not a Fred Hampton biopic, as you may be able to tell from the title.
Synopsis: We follow two Black men. Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) after the death of MLK, standing as the most notable rising revolutionary of the Black Panther Party and the civil rights movement; the man J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed to be the Black Messiah. And then there’s Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) a small-time crook who was apprehended for carjacking, blackmailed by an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) and forced to infiltrate the Black Panther Party as an informant.
Director and co-writer Shaka King takes a Martin Scorsese approach with his camerawork and directional style. Yet truthfully, the story of O’Neal and Hampton is so fascinating that it didn’t need the extra stylized push; although for the most part the film looks amazing.
Unfortunately, there is an aspect of the direction which keeps “Judas and the Black Messiah” from being a great film. King doesn’t seem to know how to elevate a historical story past some well-choreographed camera movements. That is to say, while we learn about our two leads, going into the movie one might need to know a bit about the Black Panther Party and its major players during this time, to get the desired impact. This is not a movie that will give you much character backstory or historical context throughout, which is not a good look for a historical drama. Also, (I’ll just come right out and say it) the handling of the penultimate sequence was underwhelming, considering. Only lasting a couple of minutes (I’m sure this is accurate to true events) I feel that a more seasoned director would have lingered on said sequence, if only to give the climax the weight it deserved.
The acting, on the other hand, is flawless. Kaluuya gives a performance that will go down in history as one of the best depictions of a Black revolutionary, alongside David Oyelowo as MLK and Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. Stanfield is just as potent, making flesh and bone a character we are meant to despise for the entire film. And Plemons is forever great playing these baby-faced monster characters; and this role is no exception.
Final Thought: Overall this film is an accomplishment, with historically important takeaways. In this we get to explore the Black Panthers as an organization, see a depiction of the Rainbow Coalition and understand the FBI’s historic role in carrying out assassinations; if you’ve been watching the news lately, you’d know that the FBI seemed to have played a huge role in the murders of our great Black leaders. And this all coming out of a major studio production, which is saying a lot.
Happy Black History Month.
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