Judas and the Black Messiah is a 2021 historical drama film about the betrayal of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in late-1960s Chicago, at the hands of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a FBI informant.
The late 1960s/early 1970s has proven to be fertile ground for film makers in recent years, with films like Judas and the Black Messiah, along with BlacKkKlansman and Trial of the Chicago 7, dealing with the incendiary socio-political issues of the day. In a sense, the premise of Judas and the Black Messiah provides the flip side of BlacKkKlansman, as law enforcement tackles the polar extremes of the racial divide.
As the title suggests, the film basically features two lead characters and that can be a problem for the narrative drive of the film. Arguably, O’Neal is the ‘real’ protagonist of the story as his actions and decisions have a direct impact on the well-being of Hampton. We would venture to suggest further that O’Neal is the more intriguing character. While Hampton has no character arc, O’Neal has to grapple with his own moral dilemmas being cast in the ‘Judas’ role of the most heinous classic betrayal tale.
Thus, the attempts to flesh out Hampton’s character in his relationship with his fiancé Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) do not add anything to the story. The film might have been more interesting if it had concentrated more on O’Neal’s internal conflict – certainly, a lost opportunity. In any case, Stanfield does a superb job portraying O’Neal as the man caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Of course, Kaluuya is excellent as the tragic figure if Hampton but Stanfield’s sincere performance is the superior one, in this respect.
If nothing else, Judas and the Black Messiah is excellent viewing especially for anyone interested in understanding more about this special epoch in American history.
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