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With: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen
Written by: Will Berson & Shaka King, based on a story by Keith Lucas & Kenneth Lucas
Directed by: Shaka King
MPAA Rating: R for violence and pervasive language
Running Time: 126
Date: 02/12/2021

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Panther Tracks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Opening Friday in some theaters and on HBO Max for a month's worth of streaming, Judas and the Black Messiah joins the short, but slowly-growing list of feature films about the Black Panther Party.

As a primer on this essential piece of history, the new film works spectacularly. Yet it's not to be taken lightly; viewers will likely come away battle-scarred and worn to a nubbin, which is nothing compared to what the characters themselves endure.

The movie tells the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the BPP.

He's a complex character, stuck between trying to feed hungry kids and bring together the splintered factions of the Black community, and also giving speeches calling for vigilance towards — and sometimes violence against — the police.

He also finds himself becoming closer with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a shy, soft-spoken volunteer, at a time when personal relationships might seem unwise.

As Fred rises through the ranks and becomes more prominent — and powerful — FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) takes notice, and sends down word that something is to be done about him.

But there really is no Fred Hampton story without his Judas, the wily, streetwise Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). Bill is initially seen posing as an FBI man as part of an elaborate scheme to steal cars.

Unfortunately he's caught, and he faces prison time. But FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers him a deal. If he goes undercover in the Black Panther Party, and reports back to Roy, he can avoid jail.

Bill finds himself pulled in two directions as he begins to get behind some of the party's principals, yet also finds a kind of loyalty toward Roy, who invites Bill into his home and treats him as an equal.

As Fred, Kaluuya is being positioned for Best Actor consideration, and has currently nabbed Golden Globe and SAG nominations. Already an Oscar nominee for his memorable performance in Get Out, Kaluuya is magnificent here, thunderous and magnetic.

He's the most forceful character, and the most famous, but this is really Bill's story, and Stanfield does most of the heavy lifting.

Bill is constantly conflicted with wanting to help the Party and take it to greater heights, and yet occasionally clashing with Fred, while also trying to navigate the tangles of the FBI's duplicitousness.

There's a certain wounded quality in Stanfield's countenance, which translates to a kind of gentle approachability, yet with a coiled energy. He's restless, trying to get a handle on his fate, but frequently thwarted.

He's a large reason Judas and the Black Messiah is so good, but all the performances are rock solid, including Fishback (The Hate U Give, Project Power) in a role that would have been sidelined in most other films of this type; but she comes alive with her own strength.

Even Plemons becomes more than just a "white devil". He has eerie shades of gray as he struggles with his inner morals while trying to look as if he's not struggling, cool in his sleek suit, trimmed, combed hair, and freshly-shaved baby-face.

The director behind Judas and the Black Messiah is Shaka King, who makes a huge leap to big-time filmmaking after a handful of short films, a little-seen feature, and some work in TV.

King has a sure handle on his characters and performances, but the overall flow of Judas and the Black Messiah is like a riot, a simmering pot of tension that sears our emotions and rarely gives us a breather.

Yet even as punishing a movie as 12 Years a Slave had its moments of artistry and reflection. And the recent The Trial of the Chicago 7, which features Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in a small but unforgettable part, is often funny while still conveying its stirring sense of righteous injustice.

A sweet scene in Judas and the Black Messiah like the one in which Fred and Deborah bond over recitations of Malcolm X speeches still has its undercurrent of rage and unrest.

Given the insidiously unfair nature of systemic racism, the anger is difficult, yet justified.

That aside, it's a miracle that Judas and the Black Messiah is here, given that this movie could never have been made in the late sixties, when it takes place. Nor was it likely to have been made in the 1970s, or even the 1980s.

At one point it would have been seen as dangerous to our society, but now it's essential to our healing. It forces us into the shoes of the oppressed and lets us know what it may be like to have to fight, all the time, and to continue hoping, against all evidence, for change.

All of the characters matter, and their struggles, either with or against one another, is part of one, big, hateful, shameful machine. King's film does a mighty job of exposing its corrosive inner workings in a way that actually hurts.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment's Blu-ray release is disappointingly bare-bones after the film won 2 Oscars (for Supporting Actor Kaluuya and Best Song). The video transfer, slightly pale with emphasis on browns and greens, to emphasize the period, is fine, as is the audio transfer, but Dolby Atmos is not available. The only two bonus features are short EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurettes, "Fred Hampton for the People" (10 minutes) and "Unexpected Betrayal" (8 minutes), though they do feature COVID-era interviews with the cast, director King, producer Ryan Coogler, and twin co-writers Kenny and Keith Lucas. A digital copy is included. Perhaps a deluxe disc is on the way someday, but for now, this is recommended.

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