Judas and the Black Messiah: A True and Tragic Tale – Oscar HBO Max Review

Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya headline this story of an up-and-coming civil rights leader.

SUMMARY (Spoilers if you haven’t heard the story)

In the 1960s, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is arrested for hijacking a car while pretending to be a Federal Agent. FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) agrees to drop the charges if O’Neal infiltrates the Illinois Black Panthers and spies on their leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is one of the biggest threats on the FBI’s list because of his ability to persuade rival organizations to work together in advancing civil rights causes, a group he calls the Rainbow Coalition. Hampton is set up for taking ice cream bars to give to local kids (yes, really) and sentenced to two to five years (YES. REALLY). During this period, O’Neal rises through the ranks of the Black Panthers, eventually becoming head of security. When Hampton is released for his appeal, O’Neal is paid to drug him so that Hampton cannot fight back when the FBI and local police raid his home in order to kill Hampton in the presence of his pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). So ends the 21 year life of a man whose personality and charisma were so threatening to the establishment they had to execute him.

Daniel Kaluuya is a decade older than Fred Hampton was when he died.

END SUMMARY

I had originally declined to review this film not because it wasn’t great but because I only watched it 3 days before it left streaming and I didn’t want to go “THIS MOVIE IS AMAZING, SO WATCH IT IN THE NEXT 12 HOURS.” That said, this movie is amazing and you should watch it (at your own pace). 

I wouldn’t stab you in the back like that.

The murder of Fred Hampton is, much like the Tulsa Race Massacre, a thing that is incredibly horrible and also largely unknown to many people. Just as Watchmen and Lovecraft Country sought to bring the former event to the attention of the general public, this film and, to a lesser extent, The Trial of the Chicago 7 seek to bring attention to the fact that a man was murdered by law enforcement because he was seeking to stop racism and inequality. The fact that not a ton of (certain) people know about it is even more insane when you realize that it resulted in the largest settlement in any civil rights case and, as shown in this film, had a person literally testify on public television that he was hired by the Federal Government to help kill him.

The real Fred Hampton.

This movie, much like many retellings of the life of the Messiah, does a great job of splitting the focus between Fred Hampton as a figure capable of uniting a bunch of disparate people and O’Neal as the traitorous man who is constantly questioning what he is doing. The thing is, O’Neal always has a choice, but it’s also insane that the FBI was asking him to do this. While some of the events in the film are exaggerated or based on accusations that haven’t been confirmed, more of it is accurate than you would probably like to believe. For example, having an informant with a warrant that allowed the FBI to raid places where he hid is a horrible violation of civil rights, a tactic that actually mirrors a violation of the Geneva Convention if done in war, and also something the FBI probably did, but I don’t think we have any direct confirmation of it. 

It doesn’t help the government’s case that they literally had a spy planted.

The performances by Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are phenomenal. Kaluuya makes Hampton human but also shows us the kind of charisma that a person would need to convince so many people to follow him. He’s always focused on getting people to join together rather than letting them be separated by petty differences. Lakeith Stanfield makes O’Neal into a person who clearly makes the wrong choices and doesn’t really try to change, which, if his interview is anything to go by, is probably accurate. Dominique Fishback plays Deborah Johnson as someone who is equally in love with Hampton the man and also the future he represents. 

It’s a cute moment.

Overall, fantastic movie. Really recommend it. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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