Oscar-worthy performances and a history you can't tear away from.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
When I first watched Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, I was surprised later from interviews he had done that Kaluuya is British. When I saw W'Kabi, the head of security for Wakanda’s Border Tribe in Black Panther it took several scenes into the movie before I realised that its Kaluuya playing W'Kabi. Then, in Judas and the Black Messiah, I know it's Kaluuya playing the role of Chicagoan Fred Hampton but I'm so impressed by Kaluuya's flawless delivery that I had doubts that he was ever born in the UK.
A well-deserved Golden Globes win, Kaluuya's portrayal of the Black Panther radical dispels the mythic qualities of the firebrand as well as showcasing the lesser-known sides of him as… well, human. The term 'messiah' is cribbed from J Edgar Hoover's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) notes about American political groups, where COINTELPRO needed to "prevent the rise of a 'messiah'" among the black nationalists movement.
While Judas is based on the real-life injustice of Hampton's death at police's hands, it didn't hurt that the film also has aspects of a thriller: LaKeith Stanfield's Bill O'Neal is almost discovered to be a rat; there are shoot-outs and tense moments; there is plenty of espionage… even with the foregone conclusion of Hampton's fate, you sit there white-knuckled until the credits end.
Although, Fred Hampton's mug is on the fore of Judas' many movie posters, LaKeith Stanfield's role as the duplicitous Bill O'Neal is the engine of the film. He steals cars, conning people that he's with the FBI until he is arrested and inducted into spying on Hampton for them.
Stanfield has to play a criminal, who has to undercover as a Black Panther. There are many layers to pulling this off and, in between, the shifty glances and nervous energy, Stanfield aces it and then some.
With Hampton's motivations, it's pretty clear-cut. He wants to help his people and other who are disfranchised by systemic racism. For O'Neal, his impetus is muddied, even ambiguous. Is it the money? (Yes.) Is it repaying the kindness shown by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons)? (Yes.)
"I was in the struggle," O'Neal answered in an interview for the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize II. It might sound like he was passionate about the Black Panther's creed but it could also refer to his internal battle in either giving up Hampton to the FBI or giving up on the double-life he has so carefully maintained.
What we didn't like
While the film sheds more light on Fred Hampton's assassination orchestrated by the FBI, it downplayed Hampton's politics.
The film paints him as a socialist but that's too broad a stroke to paint him in. Hampton is anti-capitalism, a communist, a Marxist-Lennist. He's unapologetic in his belief for the people to rise up against their oppressors (white powerful men). But this is a movie, not a documentary and given the medium there is an agenda to how characters are portrayed on celluloid: we don't know what Roy Mitchell is like or what O'Neal's true intentions truly are.
Hopefully, after watching Judas, viewers can further level up their history by reading up on the Black Panther's legacy and Fred Hampton's life.
What to look out for
Some of the cast from Get Out (Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield and Lil Rel Howery) appear in this. Oh, and look out for some interesting camera directions from director, Shaka King.
Sneaks of Judas and the Black Messiah
is now out in theatres will be shown at The Projector from 26 to 28 March and 1 to 4 April before opening on 8 April.