Blu-ray Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

By , Contributor
Nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and winner of two (including Best Supporting Actor for Daniel Kaluuya), Judas and the Black Messiah presents the story of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Many viewers will be unfamiliar with Hampton, who was the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the activist group. The parallel story is that of Bill O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield, also nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category, though he is arguably the lead here). O'Neal is a car thief who turns FBI informant in order to avoid jail time after getting caught impersonating a federal agent.

The film, directed and co-written by Shaka King (who, some eight years ago, directed a comedy called Newlyweeds), presents a whole lot of history in its two hours. The less one knows about the specifics of Hampton and O'Neal's stories, the more compelling Judas will play. And compelling is an apt description. Not only are Kaluuya and Stanfield's rightly-recognized performances captivating, they're supported by an incisive turn by Jesse Plemmons as Special Agent Roy Mitchell. Mitchell pulls the strings behind O'Neal's highly dangerous, and unofficial, deep cover assignment.

J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the FBI in general are frightened by what they see as a "terrorist" threat in the Black Panthers. As the charismatic Hampton gains power and influence, Hoover wants to shut their Chicago operations down. Rather than rewrite yet another extensive plot summary, which may devolve into a sub-Wikipedia-level entry, suffice it to say that the film itself suffers a bit from pacing issues and uncertain storytelling. Perhaps the relative experience of its director (and previously little-known co-screenwriter Will Berson) is the reason the film sometimes plays more as a collection of scenes (albeit very good scenes) than a flowing, cohesive narrative.

But there's historical import here that will likely inspire interested viewers to seek out the real details of Hampton and ONeal's fascinating story. Without being particularly versed in this chapter of U.S. history, it was interesting to delve deeper into learning about the elements King and Berson portrayed faithfully and the elements that bear the most dramatic license. And again, the powerfully gripping performances should draw in even viewers who may have an allergy to sociologically and politically complex films.

Despite its Oscar accolades, Warner Home Entertainment hasn't tricked out Judas and the Black Messiah with many supplements. The two included featurettes are brief but worthwhile. "Fred Hampton for the People" finds the filmmakers, including co-producer Ryan Coogler, speaking about one of their film's two central figures. "Unexpected Betrayal" focuses on Bill O'Neal.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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