Judas and the Black Messiah Movie Review: A greek tragedy in 1960’s Chicago

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Jackson Piercy
CONTRIBUTOR

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) at a Rainbow Coalition Rally. Photo from imdb.com.

The American Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s was much messier than the public-school textbooks may make one believe. The blood that was shed in secret could fill the pages of innumerable textbooks.

This film is a look into that back alley bloodshed that poses one question: How far will you go to further yourself? Would you betray those who fight for you? When is it right to stop? Who do you have to step on to make a living for yourself? When do the ends justify the means?

Everybody thinks they wouldn’t betray the messiah until they end up in Judas’ shoes. Does it make what he did right? Obviously not, but is that what he’s thinking in the moment? Is a movement worth thirty pieces of silver?

“Judas and the Black Messiah” follows Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty criminal who uses a fake FBI badge to boost cars. That badge ends up catching the eye of one real FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons), who tasks Bill with being an inside man on the Illinois Black Panther Party and their rising chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Fred’s been uniting unsavory elements in Chicago for the betterment of the community, but J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the FBI are not going to have any of it.

What follows is a story of deception, love, and a community on the rise; a rise that is never realized. We follow, through the eyes of Bill, Fred’s rise to the top of the Illinois BPP, the forming of the Rainbow Coalition, and the eventual toppling of everything Fred built. Why does it topple? It’s all the titular Judas’s doing. Bill feeds his intel to Agent Mitchell throughout and eventually kicks the chair out from under the movement’s feet, though indirectly.

This movie hurt my soul. It’s like watching a car accident in slow motion. The occasional happy moment between Fred and his partner Deborah (Dominique Fishback) is ripped away by the feeding of more intel over a steak dinner or Hoover’s ranting about race war. To me, the saddest part about this film is the way that Bill knows exactly what he’s doing but can’t back out now lest he’s shunned by the Party and hunted down by the FBI.

Lakeith Stanfield can play remorse as good as anybody I’ve ever seen. The film is laced with a haunting saxophone motif from jazz standard “The Inflated Tear,” a sorrowful, almost cry coming from this instrument. A sound that hit me like a truck. The sorrow from the tune is pervasive in the entire film. Especially at the end, seeing Bill’s actual interview from a 1990 docuseries “Eyes on the Prize.” A modern-day Judas if I’ve ever seen one, but the film leaves you feeling so bad on his account as well as the entire film just being sad.

I think this is a movie everyone needs to watch. Even if you don’t agree with the politics, I would still advise this as essential viewing. I can’t really say for any particular reason why everyone needs to see it, but I think if you gave this film a watch you’d see why, too. Every performance is immaculate, and Shaka King’s direction is all but flawless. I’ve never felt so angry and sad about a movie at the same time.

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