Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) 126 min.
Director: Shaka King
Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya
Plot: An Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton is betrayed by an FBI Informant, William O’Neal, who infiltrated the chapter and provided information that led to the government raid and murder of Fred Hampton, 21 yrs old.
This movie debuted at Sundance this year on Feb 1, and is streaming on HBO Max starting Feb 12, 2021.
Shaka King is the director, co-writer and co-producer, and Shaka cut his teeth in television, and unfortunately it shows in this movie. A TV show you can get away with being flat for 30 min, have a twist or warm moment at the end and all is forgiven. A movie has to have ups and down, emotionally, anticipation, involvement right from the start. This movie is flatlined from beginning to end. Very important subject matter though, that should be told and must be told, and that is why it is getting so much attention and praise – especially in our current climate.
The story has been shopped around for a while. The script was always the Lucas brother’s script, and it went through changes as they shopped it around. I think when Shaka came aboard, he kind of flattened it out and I think it lost its voice during all the transitions.
Bill O’Neal, the informant, is supposed to be the main character, and young Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader is another, and The Black Panthers and the gangs were yet another. The film kind of goes down the line between the three, but we never connect with any of them. We learn nothing about any of their private lives, and Shaka seems to keep us at a distance throughout the entire film. I think the film tried to have it all, and if it were a tv show – it would have been great, but 2 hours of half of this, and half of that, and some of this, and I’m not interested anymore.
Fred Hampton should have been the main character, we should have gotten to know him and all the things he was doing and struggling with. His story is the important one here, for he was the one fighting for change, trying to to do it correctly, peacefully, and with togetherness. Unfortunately this film fails to commit to him, and he is off screen for quite some during this film.
The best thing this film could have done was follow the example of Spike Lee’s Malcom X. I want to get to know the main character, follow the main character, his house, home, family, and private thoughts. We should learn about the Panthers through his eyes and only through his eyes.
Having Bill O’Neal and his involvement in the Black Panthers muddles things and takes us out of Fred Hampton’s eyes and soon you’re looking for the remote.
The FBI here, with Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover is as cliche as it gets, and it’s unfortunate that it’s probably all accurate – but they bring nothing to the table here to keep us interested or intrigued.
Fred Hampton, was just 21 when he was murdered. Daniel Kaluuya, who superbly portrays Fred Hampton in this film, is 32 and has lost that innocence and energy of a 21 yr old.
In fact most of the Panthers in those days were just kids – and I wish the film used more of an effort to depict that and show that, because that would have made a world of difference.
Be that as it may – with all its flaws and cracks and crevices, this is still an important movie. Although the message may have been diluted, certainly the events that took place are very powerful and important to American History.