A movie I have been waiting to see for quite a long time (I remember seeing a trailer for this last summer when TENET made its theatrical release), JUDAS & THE BLACK MESSIAH finally arrives in release at a very important time in our bizarre, always-changing world. With so many people all over the world wishing for peace, equality and especially happiness when everything is so complicated and unpredictable, it’s still great that we have movies like this to tell us to keep pushing forward.
Set in Chicago 1968 at the height of the Illinois’ Black Panther rise to prominence, the movie stars Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT, WIDOWS) as Fred Turner, the chairman of the Illinois party who wants to unite a “rainbow coalition” against the common enemy. We also get a connecting story of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield from SORRY TO BOTHER YOU) who, when we first meet him, is posing as a FBI agent and stealing cars. Eventually caught, O’Neal is taken under the wing of actual FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who wants him to go undercover into Turner’s organization.
The early scenes of this are set up incredibly well as filmmaker Shaka King re-creates the Chicago streets, bars and gatherings with absolute authenticity. Even just a few simple shots of our leads driving around Chicago streets matched to Sean Bobbitt’s gritty, street-light filled cinematography is absolutely stunning. We really do feel the sense of time and place here.
Where the movie slipped with me, a bit, is focusing more on O’Neal’s struggles with dealing with the FBI along with getting too close and personally involved into Turner’s organization. I almost wish this movie fully followed Fred Hampton as his character is fascinating and having O’Neal as more of a secondary character coming in and out of Turner’s life. Some sequences involving the FBI and even J. Edgar Hoover (here played by a totally unrecognizable Martin Sheen in intense makeup) feels a bit copied and uninspired and left me with the thought of “Hey, what’s Turner up to right at this moment? I’m more interested in that!”
Even with that comment, I still loved Stanfield’s performance here and he is one of the highlights of the picture, showing us much of the worry and confusion of the time. That said, he is somewhat out-shined by Daniel Kalluya’s Turner, who in key scenes nails the legend in a performance of amazing power that will be the performance everyone will remember for a long time from now instead of O’Neal’s informant, the Judas of the title. Turner is such an amazing presence along the lines of Malcolm X and MLK that you simply can’t take your eyes off of him when he is delivering speeches on screen.
Even with following characters a bit differently than I wished, there is still much to admire in JUDAS & THE BLACK MESSIAH. The movie does not shy away from the politics and police violence of the time, right up to Turner’s sudden assassination at only 21 years of age. The framing device used for this, including clips of an early 90’s show on which the movie is based along with actual footage of Turner, is a timely reminder that stories like this are still happening even as we speak, and how sad that we aren’t moving as quickly as we should.
Rating: *** out of ****
JUDAS & THE BLACK MESSIAH beings today on premium VOD services in Canada and HBO Max in the United States, along with theatrical screenings if you are lucky enough to be near an open cinema.