Film in review: “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Noah Mruz, film reviewer

We often look back at history and summarize aspects quickly. Napoleon was short, Hamilton helped create banks and the Black Panther Party was violent. While these summaries can be true, they can also limit and even diminish the history they summarize. Some things shouldn’t be summarized so quickly. The film “Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party, and the months leading up to his death, through the eyes of William “Bill” O’Neal, a member of the party and an FBI informant.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a compelling and heart-wrenching film showcasing Hampton’s beliefs and goals as well as showcases the goals of the Black Panther Party. The stand-out factors of the film are the plot and the acting, making the film something special.
The film is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield, as he joins the party and feeds information back to the FBI, though not entirely of his own volition. Bill aims to get closer to Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, to gain his trust and feed more information back to the FBI.
Throughout the film, there are several moments where you can feel the tension as characters start to brandish guns, clearly preparing for a fight. The strength of this film is easily shown in how the same amount of tension can be felt when the characters acknowledge they won’t be brandishing a gun. The tension isn’t in who is holding the gun and why, but why they should or shouldn’t have them at that moment and in why it is even being told to the viewer. It is moments like these that the tension that is showcased and felt, along with the characters where the film continues to hold your attention.
While watching this two-hour film, there were about five seconds my attention was lost by a lull in the film’s pacing. That is not an exaggeration – five actual seconds.
The ability of the filmmakers here to draw the viewer in and keep them captivated in the story is truly amazing and admirable and seems to be dwindling, as some recent films feel like they’re expecting you to have it on in the background while you do something else.
The cast for the film does a stellar job in every aspect. Stanfield and Kaluuya are both stellar in their roles, carefully displaying emotions to the viewer without the characters of the film seeing. Whatever scene they are in, they fit perfectly and drive the plot further with the strong emotion showcased. The rest of the cast also does an amazing job in the film. Dominique Fishback does an amazing job as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s girlfriend and the mother of his child. Jesse Plemons does an amazing job as Roy Mitchell, an FBI agent serving as O’Neal’s main contact and keeping the viewer questioning throughout the film whose side he is truly on. I would also like to add Lil Rel Howery, who stars alongside Kaluuya in the film “Get Out,” makes a very brief appearance in the film as an FBI agent and also does a stellar job. They may have tried to hide him under makeup, but I saw him – you can’t hide that star.
Overall, I would highly recommend this film. I want to avoid spoilers here for a viewer who might not know much about the film or the Black Panther Party in general, but it truly showcases some of their goals and ambitions in a way that is not commonly seen in films ordiscussed today.
I am giving “Judas and the Black Messiah” 4.5 out of 5 stars. It is streaming now on HBO Max until March 14th and also showing in theaters if you can attend that safely.