BAXTER — “Judas and the Black Messiah” has been named one of the best films of the year by many movie critics and arguably for good reason.

The Warner Bros. motion picture premiered this month at Sundance Film Festival before it was released theatrically at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter and made available on HBO Max.

"Judas and the Black Messiah" premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival earlier this month and was released in by Warner Bros. Pictures in theaters and digitally on HBO Max during Black History Month. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
"Judas and the Black Messiah" premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival earlier this month and was released in by Warner Bros. Pictures in theaters and digitally on HBO Max during Black History Month. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

English actor Daniel Kaluuya and American actor Lakeith Stanfield co-star in the historical biographical drama about the Black Panther Party, a political organization in the 1960s.

Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who is betrayed by another party member, William O'Neal, played by Stanfield.

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Referred to as the “Black Messiah” in the film by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, played by Martin Sheen, who ironically has been arrested many times as an actor for acts of civil disobedience.

The Black Panther Party was a Black political organization founded by college students Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966 in Oakland, California. Photo by JD Doyle on Unsplash.com
The Black Panther Party was a Black political organization founded by college students Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966 in Oakland, California. Photo by JD Doyle on Unsplash.com

O'Neal as a teen is caught by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell for stealing a car. Mitchell offers to drop the criminal charges if O'Neal infiltrates the party and becomes an FBI informant.

Jesse Plemons portrays Mitchell as a friend of the Black man who harbors no racial prejudices but nevertheless tries to convince O’Neal (and maybe himself) the party is a hate group.

Caught between two worlds, O’Neal’s loyalties are tested as he becomes more immersed in the beliefs and rhetoric of the Black Panthers while being forced to cooperate with the government.

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"Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed."

— Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party


“Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed,” Hampton tells O’Neal at one point.

O’Neal’s concerns about being revealed as a rat by the FBI or discovered as an informant by the party almost forces him to have a nervous breakdown as he walks an emotional tightrope.

The stakes are high and the danger is real in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which was inspired by true events, and was directed and produced by newcomer Shaka King, who wrote the screenplay with Will Berson, based on a story by twin brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas.

A crowd of Black hands are raised to the sky in unison. Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash.com
A crowd of Black hands are raised to the sky in unison. Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash.com

It would be easy to label O’Neal as a traitor, or characterize his actions as cowardly or selfish given that hindsight is always 20/20, but the two-hour film offers a nuanced look and almost sympathetic portrayal of O’Neal, who faced impossible decisions he constantly had to make.

Lives are tragically cut short, blood is spilled on the streets of Chicago in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” With parallels to last year’s death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the motion picture about the 1960s is as relevant, timely and powerful for today’s generations.

The Black Panthers speak at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C., on June 6. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.com
The Black Panthers speak at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C., on June 6. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.com

Kaluuya turns in another electrifying performance as Hampton, who manages to marshal and unite not only marginalized Blacks but impoverished white Southerners and Latinos in Chicago to use their power in numbers to peacefully fight systemic racism.

The Oscar-nominated Kaluuya starred in “Get Out,” which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2018. The horror film used satire and science fiction to also comment on race relations.

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Stanfield likewise starred in “Sorry to Bother You,” a 2018 dark comedy about a young Black telemarketer who adopts a white accent to succeed at his job.

Produced by writer-director Ryan Coogler, who helmed the Marvel superhero movie “Black Panther,” which also starred Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is receiving a lot of buzz.

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The R-rated biopic was released Feb. 12 in the middle of Black History Month and has an impressive and almost unheard of 96% approval rating among movie critics and audiences alike on Rotten Tomatoes, a movie ratings aggregation website.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” was named an award winner by the American Film Institute and National Board of Review while Kaluuya was singled out by the Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bdfilmforum.