Release Date(s)2021 (May 4, 2021)
Studio(s)Warner Bros Pictures (Warner Home Video)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: D+
A film takes a long time to get from idea to the screen. The creative process is often fraught with delays so it’s impossible to predict what the public’s mindset will be at the time of release. Sometimes a film may seem old-fashioned, other times ahead of its time. It’s rare that a film hits theaters just when it coincides with real-life events, fueling public discourse. Judas and the Black Messiah does exactly that. Though it focuses on a Black activist of the 1960s, its themes reflect today’s social, racial, and political issues.
Small-time Chicago criminal William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man, faces 5 years in federal prison for impersonating an FBI agent plus 18 months for grand theft auto. Because he has no political beliefs, the FBI regards O’Neal as the perfect person to insinuate himself into the Black Panther Party and report on its inner workings. Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) promises O’Neal his freedom if he infiltrates the Party and reports regularly on their leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neal will also be paid as an informant.
O’Neal soon infiltrates not only the party but Hampton’s inner circle, and discovers that they are far different from the vicious picture the FBI paints. He sees Hampton as sincerely devoted to changing the unjust lot of black people in Chicago. Taking a path markedly different from that of Martin Luther King, he and the Panthers set up community programs to assist residents and draw diverse groups together in the cause of justice. He rejects many of the Panthers’ Maoist teachings in favor of providing free breakfasts for kids and educational and healthcare programs for the community. He refuses bodyguards, willing to sacrifice himself in the name of the cause.
Nevertheless, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) maintains that Hampton is a terrorist threat to the nation and must be stopped at any cost.
O’Neal is the focus of the film, as his “thirty pieces of silver” conflicts with his morality. He demands to quit several times but Mitchell holds that long prison term over his head, so he reluctantly continues spying.
Stanfield turns in a career-defining performance as O’Neal, who transforms from cocky, small time thug into a man of conscience. Navigating a relationship with Hampton and the FBI handler takes a toll. Not only is he in constant danger of being discovered, but he realizes he is instrumental in choreographing Hampton’s downfall. Stanfield is essentially playing two roles—O’Neal the man and O’Neal the Panther infiltrator—and he’s excellent at both.
Kaluuya’s Hampton is fiercely determined, a dynamic public speaker and an inspirational leader, but soft-spoken in private. The actor is photographed from below when he speaks with Deborah, suggesting shyness, but when he’s in front of a group, he’s on fire, his eyes expressing his commitment to a just cause. He is charismatic, and that’s what frightens the establishment the most. People believe in him.
Archive film of Hampton on Youtube shows his manner of speaking, which was rapid and passionate. Kaluuya, who was born in London of Ugandan parents, has done his homework and perfectly captured Hampton’s speech patterns and tone. For that very reason, however, it’s often tough for someone unfamiliar with that style to grasp everything he says.
Director Shaka King tells the story in linear fashion. He has elicited two fine performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield, while portraying the FBI as obsessed with destroying Hampton as the face of the movement. If Sheen’s Hoover had horns and a tail, he couldn’t have been depicted more sinisterly. The milieu of the 1960s is conveyed primarily through attitudes rather than visuals. The screenplay by King and Will Berson wisely makes O’Neal the dramatic center.
Featuring 1080p resolution, Judas and the Black Messiah is presented on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.29:1. The picture is sharp, with details of the Panthers’ office, items in the restaurant where O’Neal meets agent Mitchell to deliver information, and rain on the windshield of a car in motion nicely delineated. The color palette is mostly dark, with shadowy interiors dominating. Outdoor scenes were shot in an industrial area of Cleveland to stand in for 1960s Chicago. Its long streets were similar to those leading to Chicago’s downtown area. Because of urban blight, buildings hadn’t been in use since the 1960s. An outdoor scene in which the police and the Panthers shoot it out recreates an actual event. A key interior of Hampton speaking to an enthralled audience is shot with high-key illumination, from a low angle so we see Hampton from the audience’s point of view. A dominant color is green, featured in the Panthers’ headquarters building, the walls of a hall where Hampton speaks, and the berets of the Panthers.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio English with optional subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. Sound separation is well balanced with good left to right and right to left movement, with key dialogue mostly emanating from the middle. Dialogue clarity varies. For most of the actors, it’s clear and precise, but for Kaluuya, who is channeling Hampton’s rapid speech, it’s often hard to understand. A speeding car screeches down the street as O’Neal burns rubber after his scam at a bar is discovered. Thundering gunshots fill the streets in a squaring off between Chicago police and the Black Panthers, and a second volley of shots shatters the early morning silence when officers break into Hampton’s apartment, guns blazing.
Bonus materials on this R-rated Blu-ray release include two featurettes. A Digital code is enclosed on a paper insert within the package.
Fred Hampton for the People – Daniel Kaluuya discusses his approach to playing Fred Hampton. Director Shaka King recalls hearing about Hampton when he was very young, noting that “he had the ability to diffuse issues in the community.” Hampton’s evolution as an activist is traced. “He met people at their level,” drawing them together in a mutual cause as he spoke of economic justice. Hampton made a lot of people feel uncomfortable and Hoover ordered him killed to prevent the rise of a Black messiah. Fred Hampton, Jr. offers personal recollections about being raised by a single mother and discusses his father’s legacy. Hampton’s story is relevant today. According to Hampton, Jr., his father felt that “legacy is more important than our life.”
Unexpected Betrayal – This featurette focuses on actor Lakeith Stanfield, who was eager to play the role of William O’Neal because he cared so much about Fred Hampton’s enduring legacy. As an actor, he felt like he was actually betraying Hampton. The film deals with two types of individuals: a charismatic, selfless leader and a selfish opportunist. O’Neal valued his own agenda over the larger ideas at stake. In reality, Hampton and O’Neal weren’t close. O’Neal “walks a razor blade; is he victim or villain?” It was important that the audience eventually feel compassion for O’Neal, and Stanfield brought that quality to the role.
Judas and the Black Messiah examines a time when the government used its power to crush the voices of protest while labeling as domestic terrorists those who were pursuing equality. The film is clearly one-sided. The Panthers’ more violent history is downplayed to shed light on how, fifty years after the film’s events, racial injustice is still very much a part of American life.
- Dennis Seuling