Nerdlocker Movie Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

“You can kill a revolutionary but you can never kill the revolution.” – Fred Hampton

It’s topics like this, the assassination of American activist, Fred Hampton, that make you truly realize that at the end of the day you really don’t know much beyond your own window. I think we can all admit that, at least from time to time, we tend to live within a bubble we’ve made for ourselves, all warm and safe inside. I know I’m guilty of it. It wasn’t until fifty-one years after the incident that I first heard this man’s name. I don’t want to politicize my review but I have to admit that when I see a film as eye opening as Judas and the Black Messiah I question my education. Not so much what was taught but more accurately what was withheld. I refuse to believe that stories such as this were not simply skipped over due to lack of interest or a lack of time. As I get older I realize more and more that agendas make the world go ‘round, it’s just a question of who’s spinning it. It’s certainly not you and I.

Judas and the Black Messiah feels important; not just for those involved but for the future generations these heroes fought for. Beyond the tragedy addressed in the film, the most unfortunate aspect of a story more than half a century old is that its issues faced are more relevant than ever. Police brutality, racial injustices in a variety of ways, some so unimaginable it takes something like this film to bring its darker details into the harsh light of day. It may be harsh but it’s also unmistakable for what it is and what needs to change. I think though the question of our age is: How? I wish I could say but smarter people than myself have been asking this longer than I’ve been alive.

For those in the dark about this amazing American figure and the subject of the film, Judas and the Black Messiah is about Fred Hampton, a leader of the Chicago faction of the Black Panthers during the 1960’s. It’s rare that I can watch a film and walk away feeling like I genuinely learned something but I tell you this true story is complex and definitive. And it will undoubtedly leave its mark on you if you only let it. Beyond the influence of Fred Hampton this is a proper telling of what was in the vein of justice for all and what was downright criminal and at times truly terrifying.

In the height of their power, the Black Panthers were made to look like nothing more than domestic terrorists. While certainly not a collection of saints their overall goal was the protection of the traditionally marginalized, particularly Black Americans. Often facing physical intimidation, literal unsolicited violence and murder, this activist group felt it necessary to arm themselves. As one might expect this led to even more clashes between citizens and police.

The true threat of this story came at the moment when the FBI learned of Fred Hampton’s intentions to bring together everyone who have been beaten down by a corrupt government. This meant a joining of forces among White people, Black, Hispanic and so on. A true Rainbow Coalition. This meant in the eyes of the government, in particular FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, that Hampton’s strength was growing and had to be stopped at any cost. Insert William O’Neal. Seen in history as a coward and Judas among his own people, this story aims to humanize him and his choices. While it never tries to justify his choices it portrays a man torn by self preservation and listening to the message he never intended to hear in the first place.

I watched an interview with the director, Shaka King, and he explained that this story was described to him as The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program). Rather than make it an indie that would inevitably fall away with little more than a mutter, he made it in the form of a crime drama replete with violence and intrigue. It asks questions of morality while maintaining a constant sense of danger. Rarely are these characters allowed to relax and the tension only rises from scene to scene. And believe me when I say, the explosions, literal and not, unleash with unbelievable force meant to knock you on you ass. It acts as a sort of trojan horse, entertaining on the outside concealing an astonishingly harrowing true story underneath.

A story of betrayal and real heroism, messy and imperfect, these people aimed to better their reality and faced insurmountable odds and still they persisted. They press forward with hope and unity as their recruitment tools. Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton is powerful, sometimes intimidating but unquestionably motivating. He is the spirit of Fred Hampton, returned from his rest to speak truth once again. Hiding in the weeds, LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal is complex. He makes choices that lead you to hate him for so many reasons but ultimately we learn the forces that motivated him were the very people Hampton himself was fighting against. The Black Panthers faced their violence while lambs to the slaughter like O’Neal were manipulated with a more psychological approach. Both faced the same enemy but were tortured in completely different ways. Still, he betrayed them and his conscience. He was left empty in ways he never could have anticipated. Kaluuya’s and Stanfield’s scenes together are always electric and unfortunately tragic in the long run. While only early into February, Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.

Fred Hampton, American Activist. Murdered by the FBI at age 21.

Rated R For: violence and pervasive language
Runtime: 126 minutes
After Credits Scene: No
Genre: Biopic, Drama, Crime, History
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
Directed By: Shaka King

Out of 10 Nerdskulls
Story: 10/ Acting: 10/ Directing: 9/ Visuals: 9
OVERALL: 10 Nerdskulls

Buy to Own: Yes. Plays in theaters and streams on HBO Max, February 12th.

Check out the trailer below:

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Chase Gifford

"Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world"-Jean-Luc Godard