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Sunday December 4th

Oscars Spotlight: “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a thoughtful, emotional powerhouse

From front to back: LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya in "Judas and the Black Messiah." Photo by Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures/TNS
Buy Photos From front to back: LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya in "Judas and the Black Messiah." Photo by Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures/TNS

“Anywhere there’s people, there’s power.” 

No film has made that point more apparent than “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which brought to life the mantra so often repeated by its subject, Deputy Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton.

The film starts by focusing on Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), who, after getting caught stealing a car and impersonating a federal agent in 1968, is recruited by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to infiltrate the Illinois Black Panther Party as an informant. His goal is to provide inside information on Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) so the FBI can prevent him from becoming too popular. 

Kaluuya’s portrayal of Hampton is stunning. From his first appearance to his last, he captivates the audience and takes them on an emotional journey. He takes an already excellent screenplay — which does well to capture the broader themes of racial tension and the fight for equality while communicating them with believable tone and word choice — and brings it to life. 

His speech after he was released from jail may be one of the best moments captured by film this year. 

Viewers truly feel impelled to become the revolutionaries Hampton and his audience so proudly proclaim they are. All the while, Mitchell and O’Neal lock eyes, ratcheting up the suspense of an already heated moment. It was an Oscar moment for Kaluuya — my pick for Best Supporting Actor — whose charisma echoes that of Hampton as he tried to unite the disadvantaged groups of Chicago under one banner. 

And unite them, he does — at least, while he could. 

“Judas” immediately touches on the systemic racism that Hampton and the Panthers were confronted with from the authorities. 

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and all the law enforcement officials below him use deceptive tactics to try and keep Hampton quiet, including arresting him on arbitrary charges and harming innocent people to try and get their way. Police brutality is also at the forefront, with Chicago officers provoking the Panthers only to make them the victims of unnecessary violence.

In collaborating with law enforcement, O’Neal grapples with an intense internal conflict, providing a fascinating lens through which we view the tragic story of Hampton. He becomes even more tormented by the idea of betraying Hampton as he gets closer to him, working his way up the ranks to becoming the Illinois Panthers’ security chief. Stanfield’s tortured grimaces and the increasingly rattled, edgy articulation of his lines do very well to convey his guilt to the audience. 

Dominique Fishback delivers a tremendous performance as Hampton’s love interest, Deborah. The relationship between her and Hampton serves to provide a more human look at the larger-than-life revolutionary. The two share tender, intimate moments, scored beautifully by a soft piano motif that, along with stellar dialogue, helps convey just how much love they have for each other. 

In fact, every character in “Judas” is developed extraordinarily well, and that’s where its strength lies. 

Agent Mitchell receives a spotlight that reveals he isn’t the unfeeling vessel for prejudice his supervisors want him to be. The movie shows how he witnesses firsthand the seedy tactics employed by law enforcement, which cause him to doubt the morality of the work he’s doing.

Even the movie’s minor characters, in their few minutes of screentime, manage to have their personalities captured in impressive detail. Thanks to impressive cinematography, highlighted by inventive camera angles and creative use of lighting, their emotions are bolstered by the beautiful scenery behind them. 

The events of the film’s climax, though tragic, emphasize the importance of the causes Hampton and the Panthers fought for — equality and an end to government corruption, to name a few. The grim, graphic nature of its portrayal serves as a reminder of the price many have paid in the hopes of securing a better future for us all.

“Judas” is a powerful film, and that should be no surprise — for “anywhere there’s people, there’s power.” (9.5/10)

Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming on Apple TV and is nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (twice), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Original Song.


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