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Review: 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

The title Judas and the Black Messiah might be a little misleading. It’s not about religion.

It’s about politics--the turbulent politics following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the late Sixties.

It’s about the struggle for civil rights and the most effective way to achieve it. When peaceful protest appeared to be ineffective, hard-core militancy seemed the logical alternative.

And so, the Black Panther Party movement was born. They quickly became a very vocal, very public presence in America.

Despite their mission to make positive changes in their local communities they were perceived as a menacing, threatening presence by the population at large. Their rhetoric was volatile, their politics promoted revolution.

Mainstream America was taken aback by their military-style attire, anti-establishment hairdos and their penchant for defiantly brandishing weapons when photographed.

People took notice. And that included J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen) and the FBI who set about to infiltrate the Black Panthers and disrupt their activities.

Ironically, the FBI considered the Panthers to be as much of a potential threat as the Ku Klux Klan.

They needed an informant, a paid informant who would betray the leader of the Black Panther Party for a proverbial bag of silver coins.

The title Judas and the Black Messiah pretty much says it all. It’s a story of betrayal.

2020 has been a rather remarkable year when it comes to movies about The Black Experience and the struggle for civil rights and equality in America.

The list includes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The United States vs, Billie Holiday and One Night in Miami.

While Judas and the Black Messiah might not live up to the artistry of those movies, it is nevertheless a movie well worth seeing.

Start with the fact that it is based on actual events that many would prefer to be left in the past and forgotten.

It’s a dark, disturbing chapter of American history that has recently been the subject of a short list of hard-hitting, well-produced, socially relevant movies.

The timing of their releases couldn’t be more fortuitous or impactful in light of current events and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Together, they provide historical context for current events and attest to the long struggle for freedom and equality that is still ongoing. Like the other films mentioned, Judas and the Black Messiah is a searing story of racial injustice.

It’s a story so unsettling and disturbing -- and incredible -- that some might find it hard to believe.

What transpires seems blatantly unthinkable. Yet it happened.

Cinematically, and stylistically the movie plays like a movie made in the late Sixties or early Seventies.

The images, sounds and music take you back in time to a climate of political and social turmoil. It’s a cultural time-trip.

But despite the retro fashions, hair styles and hip phrases, it’s not a world that is totally unfamiliar; particularly with regard to the racial divide that has fractured this nation since its inception.

Story-wise, it’s the tale of a petty officer-impersonating car thief, apprehended and offered the choice of either serving five years in prison or agreeing to become a paid informant for the FBI.

It’s a devil’s bargain of a choice, right from the outset -- one that puts the story’s protagonist, William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) in a very dangerous place.

His mission is to gather information about Black Panther charismatic leader and organizer Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya).

If O’Neal is so much as suspected by members of the extremist, violent organization, he knows he will be tortured and killed.

The suspense of walking that thin line is what drives the palpable drama in this story. It works.

While the script might be a bit uneven, it makes its point, tracing the escalating tensions that eventually reach the boiling point and spill over into cold blooded murders committed by the police, armed stand-offs and violent shoot-outs.

It culminates in a brutal assassination coordinated by law enforcement that begs the question of who the real perpetrators and victims were in this bloody act, and the chain of events that led up to it.

The horrifying police raid is an ugly truth that might have faded into history and become a footnote if not for movies like this that will not allow us to ignore or forget what took place.

It is for that reason that Judas and the Black Messiah is an important film for our times.

While it might be difficult to come to terms with the shocking details of this story, the reality of it is powerfully underscored at the very end with the inclusion of a rare 1989 TV interview with the real Bill O’Neal in which he discusses his coerced, conflicted role in this covert, federal investigation and sanctioned execution.

What follows the interview footage amounts to a double-whammy of an ending in the form of a full screen postscript graphic.

It’s a sobering sucker punch of additional information that takes this movie to another level.

One you will never forget.


Judas and the Black Messiah is in theaters and on HBO Max now.

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