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  • Writer's pictureMatt Conway

Judas and the Black Messiah: Sundance 2021 Review

Judas and the Black Messiah Synopsis: The story of Fred Hampton, who served as the passionate chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. While he rises through the ranks through his commanding speeches, his life changes forever when FBI informant William O’Neal.

As its biblically apropos title suggests, Judas and the Black Messiah paints itself as a battle of values against the turning tides of betrayal. Writer/director Shaka King allows his overlooked true story to stand taller than your typical biopic fare, evoking a powerful testament against the external suppression of equality.

King, a director who cut his teeth overseeing various TV shows, elicits a powerful breakout effort within Hampton’s meteoric rise to fame. His fittingly bleak aesthetics have an engaging allure (I took to his brutal, no-thrills depictions of violence), but it’s his intelligent choice to let Hampton exist outside of his roaring speeches that proves the most impactful. King’s script intimately explores the trials and tribulations of martyrdom through Hampton’s prophetic understanding of his untimely fate. As Fred intimately reveals to his spouse, giving everything to a cause means giving away every part of one’s self to see it through.

Judas and the Black Messiah’s conflict of interests speaks to a generational struggle of values amidst our capitalistic environment. Hampton spends most of the runtime uniting groups to stand as one against racial oppression, with King presenting an exceedingly relevant pulse on the inequitable rights for profiled protestors. On the flip side, William O’Neal operates as a callous agent of chaos, stripping his humanity at every turn while profiting off Hampton’s demise. The draining journey O’Neal undertakes reflects the inherent vapidness of his relentless chase for success, as well as delving into the vicious intentions of shadowy government forces. King’s examination of the character’s dual existences adds nuanced inclusions to the tense conflict at hand.

All of these viable conceits would mean little if the performances weren’t up to snuff. In Judas’ case, the talented ensemble offers some of the year’s best work to date. If it were up to me, Daniel Kaluuya would already have an Oscar in his hands for his equally volatile and vulnerable depiction of Fred Hampton. Through every speech and intimate moment of reflection, Kaluuya embraces Hampton’s verbose wisdom with emotional authenticity while effortlessly disappearing into his unique persona.

LaKeith Stanfield continues his run as a dedicated character actor, imbuing Fred with twitchy energy that ultimately builds toward complete mania. Jesse Plemons, Ashton Sanders, and Dominique Fishback also offer strong work, with Fishback often stealing the show as one of the film’s emotional anchors.

Concluding with a painfully bleak finale that speaks to society’s ongoing struggles, Judas and the Black Messiah thrives as a breathless showstopper deserving of all the praise sung upon it.

Judas and the Black Messiah opens in theaters and on HBO Max on February 12th


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