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Sunday, February 28, 2021

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Film Friday: "Judas and the Black Messiah"

<p><em>Graphic by Carissa Gurgul</em></p>

Graphic by Carissa Gurgul

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. This article contains spoilers.

It only took a few minutes for “Judas and the Black Messiah” to get me hooked.

Director Shaka King, who has only one other full-length film under his belt, has created a magnificent piece of film that delivers a gritty, semi-fictional depiction of the events that transpired in late 1960s Chicago.

The prolific racism of the era is on full display, but the film also takes time to show the more intimate, interpersonal struggles of the Black Panthers, beyond just the tension between the party and mainstream society. 

Praise also goes to LaKeith Stanfield, who portrays William O’Neal, and Daniel Kaluuya, who plays chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton. Both actors have amazing films in their portfolios and create a dynamic that is a pleasure to watch.

Both actors have also shared the screen in Jordan Peele’s fantastic “Get Out.” It was great seeing them share more scenes and have their characters develop a larger impact on the other. 

Although not as action-packed or dramatic as I was expecting, the film delivers a thought provoking portrait of each character as well as the tension that develops in their multi-year struggle.

It’s not a one-sided journey by any means. Stanfield’s character operated as an FBI informant during his years with the Black Panther Party and kept tabs on Hampton while he was emerging as a leader. It’s thrilling, as well as fantastic, to watch O’Neal become more and more conflicted with his choices as he grows closer to the comrades he is betraying. 

Another fascinating aspect of the film is the exploration into the FBI. The cloak and dagger operation disrupted the party’s efforts and ultimately shut them down almost completely, aided by rhetoric labeling them as a domestic terrorist organization. The FBI play a major role in manipulating events in Chicago and hindering Hampton’s ability to become a much larger role model for oppressed groups. 

Every plot development, every conversation and every rousing speech featuring passionate rhetoric drew me in further to the film and kept me in a perpetual state of dread I haven’t often experienced in a biopic. The looming threat of being exposed keeps O’Neal in a constant state of paranoia that makes every interaction with the Black Panthers thrilling. You don’t know what is going to happen.

I thought every scene, whether it involved a police shootout or a simple conversation in a dining room was important. Every scene holds an ounce of emotional weight that King manages to make the most of and his storytelling is one of the best aspects of the film. 

My final thought when the credits rolled was simply, “Wow.” I uttered it aloud many times. The resolution to the film is what made me look back on everything we had seen and question was it all worth it? Was O’Neal’s ambition and ongoing betrayal worth sacrificing his comrades? Was Hampton’s movement worth dying for? I thought about this for a while.

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If you have the time, I would absolutely recommend this film. It was worth every second and I’m sure it won’t disappoint you. 

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is available to stream on HBO Max for a limited time. It holds a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Contact columnist Quinn Humphrey at quinn.humphrey@richmond.edu.

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