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Movie Review: "Judas and the Black Messiah"

There are many movies that are worth seeing, but there are a lot of stinkers as well. My goal here is to weed out the good from the bad.

Theatrical Release: 2/12/2021

Theatrical Release: 2/12/2021

Synopsis

Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) screwed up. He was somewhat of an uncommon car thief as his strategy is to impersonate an FBI agent in order to steal cars. However, after getting arrested, this strategy puts him on the radar of the FBI. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) sees an opportunity with Bill O'Neal. Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the Black Panther party are making many within the U.S. government nervous. They see the Black Panther party as a dangerous terrorist group, and they want to smother it before it gains more power. Fred Hampton, however, has a loud voice and a powerful message, making him a beacon of hope for many in the Chicago area.

Roy Mitchell's plan is to make Bill O'Neal an FBI informant and task him with infiltrating the Black Panthers. If Bill refuses, he will be charged with grand theft auto and impersonating a federal agent, and he could face up to five years in prison. Thus, he reluctantly accepts, but as he becomes more and more embedded within the Black Panther party, tensions between the Black Panthers and law enforcement begin to rise. If he fails, he will go to prison. If he gets caught by the Black Panthers, he will be killed. Bill has no choice but to continue his mission, but Fred Hampton's message forces him to question the morality of his actions as the feud between the Black Panthers and law enforcement approaches its boiling point.

Official Trailer

The Pros & Cons

All movies start with an average score of 75pts, points are then added or subtracted based on each Pro and Con. Each Pro or Con is designated points, ranging from 0-10, to convey how significant these Pros or Cons are.

The ProsThe Cons

Fred Hampton (+8pts)

Depth (-4pts)

Bill O'Neal & Roy Mitchell (+8pts)

Dialogue (-2pts)

The Black Panthers & The FBI (+6pts)

The Informant Storyline (-2pts)

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Pro: Fred Hampton (+8pts)

I thought the filmmakers did a good job of establishing Fred Hampton as a man of the people. It was clear that this young man was selfless, he was driven to unify other oppressed groups, and he was devoted to helping those in need. This movie had plenty of other characters with questionable morals, but this guy was an immovable mountain of morality, and it was interesting to see someone like him taking on the deep-rooted racial issues in Chicago. It is also one thing to want to bring people together and lead others, but it is a totally other thing to have the charisma to actually do it. This was an easy character to like, and Daniel Kaluuya did an absolutely fantastic job with the role. I had a couple minor complaints with the character, both of which I will get into later, but I thought the filmmakers did a great job of portraying him as the titular "Black Messiah," as I totally bought him as a man of the people, selflessly devoted to helping others, and willing to risk everything to further that mission.

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Con: Depth (-4pts)

This movie touched on a lot of serious and impactful things, but they did not really dive deep into much of it. First there was Fred Hampton, who the filmmakers did not really establish as an important cultural figure. I did not think the filmmakers properly conveyed the cultural significance of the man, and basically just made him seem like the leader of a neighborhood. As a result, I did not get the FBI being so invested in bringing him down, and the end of the movie was not as impactful as it could have been. The filmmakers did a great job of showing how much the people meant to him, but I thought they could have done a better job of showing how much he meant to them.

Then there was Bill O’Neal and his struggle with the morality of his actions. This was touched upon, but exploring it deeper, and making it feel like the character was being pulled in both directions, would have made the character’s story far more compelling. These things were definitely touched upon throughout the movie. However, I thought there was room to dive deeper, and I think doing so would have made the movie even more impactful than it already was.

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Pro: Bill O'Neal & Roy Mitchell (+8pts)

While I would have liked it if the filmmakers dove deeper into this character’s internal struggle, I still thought he was a compelling character. Bill O’Neal knew the significance of the Black Panther party, but the jail time he faced sort of tied his hands on the decision placed before him. He had to infiltrate the Black Panthers, despite agreeing with what they stood for. On top of that, the guy sort of idolized law enforcement, and looked at Roy Mitchell as somewhat of a father figure. This planted him firmly on the fence of the feud between the Black Panthers and law enforcement, and he was being pulled in both directions. It was interesting to see him in this position, and it was interesting to see the conflict within him. My only complaint is that the filmmakers only stayed on the surface with this character‘s struggle, and diving deeper would have made this whole movie far more compelling.

I also thought the character of Roy Mitchell was interesting, as he was an FBI agent who initially seemed like he was just trying to do the right thing, based on the information he had. As the story progressed, the character started to feel dirtier and dirtier, and I thought this was an interesting progression. However, this was yet another character whose story would have been far more compelling if his development got more focus. Finally, credit is due to the actors in these roles. Much like Daniel Kaluuya with Fred Hampton, as interesting as these characters were written, the actors in the roles deserve a lot of credit for bringing their stories to the screen in the compelling way they did.

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Con: Dialogue (-2pts)

This was a pretty minor issue, because I have heard audio of the real Fred Hampton speaking, and I think Daniel Kaluuya did a great job of sounding just like the guy. That being said, there were scenes in which I could hardly make out what he was saying. I was able to put it together, and I eventually got used to it, but I think dialing down the impression a little to be more understandable would have served the movie better than having a very accurate impression that was hard to understand. Like I said, I eventually got used to it, but the fast-paced mumbling of Daniel Kaluuya made it hard to understand the character in the beginning of the movie, and it honesty took me out of the movie a few times.

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Pro: The Black Panthers & The FBI (+6pts)

I liked the rivalry between these two groups, because the filmmakers did not portray one as wholly good and the other as wholly evil. The FBI, and law enforcement in general, were certainly the antagonists, but the filmmakers made a point to show that from their perspective, they were trying to do what was right. Similarly, the Black Panthers were certainly the protagonists of this story, but they were not entirely without their share of evil. They murdered cops who were just trying to do their jobs, they murdered other members who turned out to be informants, and they started their share of violence in the name of peace. The Black Panthers were very obviously the protagonists of this story, and the feds were wrong to vilify them as they did, but I thought the filmmakers did a good job of showing that there were good and bad men on both sides, and that both sides really just wanted peace. It made this feud far more compelling than it would have been if all the Black Panthers were saints and all the cops were racist monsters.

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Con: The Informant Storyline (-2pts)

One thing I thought the filmmakers could have handled better was the informant storyline. At first, Roy Mitchell seemed like a sympathetic fed who did not exactly see Bill O’Neal as a bad guy, and wanted to take him on as an informant for mutual gain. Then Roy Mitchell seemed to genuinely take a liking to Bill, inviting him in his home, having him around his kid, and so on. Then as the movie progressed, Roy Mitchell became colder, and I did not think the filmmakers really justified it. It just seemed like him being a good guy was not convenient to the story, and that the filmmakers wanted tension. Overall I liked Roy Mitchell and the informant storyline, but Roy Mitchell’s behavior throughout the movie felt inconsistent, and he was yet another character who, had he been given more focus, could have had a far more compelling story arc.

Grading Scale

GradeCategoryPoints

A+

Amazing

95-100

A-

Great

90-94

B+

Good

85-89

B-

Decent

80-84

C+

Average

75-79

C-

Watchable

70-74

D+

Bad

65-69

D-

Terrible

60-64

F

Garbage

45-59

movie-review-judas-and-the-black-messiah

Grade: B+ (89pts)

This was one of those movies that immediately peaked my interest as soon as I saw the trailer. A movie about Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers starring two of the guys from Get Out—Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield—and Jesse Plemons? I’m in. First there was the plot, which gave this drama plenty of intensity, as the main character was forced between a rock and a hard place. He either had to go to prison, or try to infiltrate the Black Panthers, a group that would certainly kill him if they discovered the truth. It was also a story about Fred Hampton, a beacon of hope for those in the Chicago area who felt oppressed or forgotten by the government and law enforcement. It was an interesting story, with great performances, and plenty of action, due to the war between law enforcement and the Black Panthers.

As is the case with all movies, this movie was not perfect. I thought Daniel Kaluuya’s impression of Fred Hampton was fantastic, but his fast-paced, mumbling dialogue was hard to understand, especially in the beginning of the movie—before I got used to it. I also thought that, as much as the subject matter of the movie was both interesting and serious, the filmmakers never really dove deep into the interesting and impactful stories they introduced. They did not dive deep into Fred Hampton’s impact as the messiah, they did not dive deep into Bill O’Neal’s inner struggle, and they did not dive deep into Roy Mitchell’s character progression. Fortunately, what this movie did well, it did really well. The characters’ stories were still interesting, even if they were somewhat shallow, and the feud between the Black Panthers and the feds was an interesting one to see unfold. Put all of this together and what you have is a really good movie.

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