Daniel Kaluyya and Lakeith Stanfield give it their all in this devastating retelling of history.

Coauthored by: Henry Nguyen

This past week, the Ledger received a special invitation to attend a virtual screening and follow-up summit regarding Warner Bros. latest release,“Judas and the Black Messiah.” Stemming from a story by Kenny and Keith Lucas, Will Berson and Shaka King — who also directed the film — co-wrote the screenplay. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a biopic that tells the story surrounding the betrayal of political activist and Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton by FBI informant William O’Neal. 

As the awaited birth child of the Lucas brothers, the story has been a long time coming since their time spent taking an African-American studies course together in college. 

“Before that, we hadn’t known anything about him or his story, it’s not really taught where we’re from,” said Keith Lucas. “We read his story and it just blew us away. And no one was really talking about what an injustice it was.”

“You never forget it, it sticks with you,” added Kenny. And that is exactly what this movie does; sticks with you. 

“Judas and the Black Messiah” marks Shaka King’s departure from the comedy focused films his name has become acquainted with where he instead dives into more serious and plot driven storytelling. 

As producer Ryan Coogley had pointed out, “I think this was the film Shaka was born to make, to be honest … The film brings up things that are still bothering us, things that need to be addressed. Putting this in Shaka’s hands made sense in a way you couldn’t put your finger on — kismet. Even down to the fact that every actor Shaka wanted, we were able to get. No one passed, or wasn’t available, down the line. From the start, it was incredibly unique and special.”

With a star-studded cast at work, the film begins with the introduction of William O’Neal — played by Lakeith Stanfield — who receives a plea bargain after being arrested for stealing a car and impersonating an officer. The deal includes a plan to infiltrate the Black Panther Chicago chapter in order to gain intel that will lead to the FBI’s hopeful arrest of chairman Fred Hampton. Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, was an outspoken, educated activist and member of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, which made him a high level target of the Chicago police department.

This film highlights the harsh truths that face Black Americans faced, and still do face, every day. It brings forth the marginalized and misrepresented stories in American history and presents them in a way that is completed with thoughtfulness and consideration for all parts and players involved.

The depiction is careful and so well done to the point that it’s difficult to believe that most of the events that take place in the movie actually happened roughly 50 years ago. The movie doesn’t hold back in conveying the frustrations, blunt truth and violence that reveals a lot about our corrupt institutions along with the consequences of the embedded racism festering within them. 

It is clear that each frame was crafted with careful intention and research to truly capture 1960s Chicago under its political and social turmoil. Costuming design, with credit due to Charlese Jones, was excellently crafted, as it also successfully captured the look of the time. The film’s visual direction is overall very stylized with orange hues and neon lights that have since become reminiscent of the time period. 

Stanfield’s acting chops truly stood out as he plays the on edge, existential O’Neal. As the Lucas brothers mentioned during the summit, “When we were thinking about the story we were like, ‘We need LaKeith to play William O’Neal.’ You’re the only actor we thought we trusted with that role,” said Kenny to Stanfield. “ … Because it’s such a complex character. Probably one of the  most complex characters that I’ve ever seen on the screen,” added Keith. 

And while both Kaluuya and Stanfield were expertly cast for their roles, Dominique Fishback’s casting is another that can’t go without praise. Fishback provided the poetic and loving nature of Deborah Johnson — Mother Akua — while also making sure to hone in on her loyal, unyielding and steadfast behaviors to completely encompass the role. 

While there was a lot to fit into the 126 minute runtime, some adaptations were necessary that in turn left more of these intimate scenes to be desired and important characters left without a lot of screen time. The film introduces other important members of the Black Panthers, like Bobby Rush, but then pushes them to the background. 

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is an important film that brings up and truthfully retells a sensitive time in U.S. history that is often overlooked and deserves to be told. Its themes are still very much applicable to today’s current events. Through its portrayal, comes a story that is inexplicably devastating, especially if viewers aren’t previously aware of the events that this film is based on before watching. If you’re not interested in history or biopics then, at least, give this film a viewing due to its relevance. 

Availability: In theatres Feb. 12 and to stream on HBO Max 

Title: Judas and the Black Messiah

Star Rating: Four and a half Stars out of Five 

Good:

  • Careful depiction of a true story 
  • Incredible Acting 
  • Stylized and well crafted depiction of setting

Bad:

  • Some roles could have been brought out more
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