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‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is infuriating in the right way

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is infuriating in the right way

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is infuriating in the right way
February 25
11:30 2021

“We don’t fight fire with fire. We fight fire with water.” 

In 1967, conman William “Wild Bill” O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is arrested for stealing a car and impersonating a federal officer. As part of a deal with FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O’Neal infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Planter Party to get close to the charismatic Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). As Hampton grows more popular, the FBI begins to look to O’Neal for any way to quell Hampton’s actions, tearing him between the two groups.

Looking to retell the plot to assassination civil rights icon Fred Hampton, Shaka King’sJudas and the Black Messiah” seeks to be one of the most confrontational movies released by a major studio in years. Led by current greatest-of-their-generation actors such as Stanfield, Kaluuya and Plemons, “Black Messiah” certainly has the deck stacked in its favor, and rightfully so.

“Black Messiah” is one of the most searing and brutally sincere movies I’ve seen in awhile. While some movies try to dull their edges a bit to avoid risking offense, King and co. make no bones about the story they’re telling and the characters involved. No punches are pulled when it comes to those who bear responsibility, even if they feel some sort of guilt over it. Neither is any of the sheer, ungodly talent on display. 

First, this may be a career best for Stanfield. While he’s impressed in “Get Out,” “Sorry To Bother You” and “The Photograph,” plus his role on “Atlanta,” Stanfield is likely the best he has ever been here. As Bill O’Neal, he has to play a selfish man who is initially in it for his own gain, only to slowly start to the light of Hampton’s idea while still remaining self-interested. He is magnificent, using his natural charisma to draw the audience in while balancing it against enough cocky smugness to make you want to strangle him. Bill O’Neal is easily one of the most complex characters he’s ever played. While Kaluuya getting all the award buzz, Stanfield’s work should absolutely not go unmentioned. 

Speaking of Kaluuya, let’s talk about how he continues to just kill it. While his performance is not one-to-one with the real Fred Hampton, Kaluuya effortlessly transitions between a completely unafraid, confident leader to a more guarded, sensitive man who awkwardly gushes about his influences and fascination with poetry. Kaluuya deserves the buzz he’s getting, and his work here submits him as potentially one of the best of his generation.

Plemons is also notable here as FBI agent Mitchell, the man who would plot the betrayal of Hampton. While Plemons has a knack for playing incredibly unsettling bad guys, his role is far more subtle and gray than his past characters. He’s not an out-and-out sociopath — he’s more of a simple guy who’s following orders and isn’t considering the potential moral ramifications of his actions in the greater scheme of things. Still, you will want to punch him in the face.

Director King shouldn’t be forgotten, either. Effortlessly pulling off longer takes and stitching together more complicated scenes, his direction is slick while allowing just enough roughness to help ground the gritty setting of late ‘60s Chicago. He keeps his characters’ emotions in-frame while also handling the more chaotic, violent confrontations throughout the 128 minute runtime. Another subtle feat is near the end when he pulls back and just immerses the audience in the sheer horror of what’s being shown. The control and skill King shows is staggering.

The script is no different. Co-written by King and Will Berson with contributions from Keith and Kenneth Lucas, there’s such a tightness to its pacing, what it chooses to reveal to the audience and how it handles growing tensions. 

The only fault is the focus. This isn’t quite a Fred Hampton movie. While it’s based around events encircling him, it really is more the tale of Will O’Neal. Not that Hampton gets near-equal focus to O’Neal, but it will be a turn off for some. Still, the script and story deliver and enthrall.

Lastly, the score by composer Mark Isham and trombonist Craig Harris is one of the most instrumentally diverse I’ve heard in awhile. While Harris uses his jazz background effectively, and some parts recognizably sound like classic jazz, he and Isham don’t stop there. They use percussion, different styles of guitar strings, strings, horns etc. Yet, their work feels coherent and hardly any of it feels out of tune with the rest, if at all. They serve the movie well. 

One of the sleekest, assertive directorial breakouts in a long while, “Judas and the Black Messiah” will stick around, long after the credits roll. Much like its titular subjects King and co.’s film is incendiary, yet sensitive — subtle, yet thunderous. Enraging in its subject matter wondrous in its execution. 

Will’s Rating: 4.5/5

Featured image: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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