At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Judas and the Black Messiah “2021”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Biographical Drama-Thriller/ Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen, Algee Smith, Lil Rel Howery, Jermaine Fowler, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Dominique Thorne, Robert Longstreet, Terayle Hill, Amari Cheatom, Caleb Eberhardt, Mark Francis/ Runtime: 126 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that, in the opinion of this reviewer at least, there are not as many performers in the world of movie magic operating right now whose project choices intrigue me as much as the ones picked by the dynamic duo that is Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya and yet this is not as surprising as it might initially sound. This is because although this pairing is tied together because of their truly riveting work in Jordan Peele’s downright entertaining 2017 thrill ride Get Out, they are also just as riveting to watch on their own as well as when they act in a film together. A fact that I feel is best exemplified when seeing how Stanfield has managed to constantly delight us with his work in such slices of cinematic pie as Uncut Gems and Sorry to Bother You (and of course his amazing work on Atlanta.) At the same time we see that Kaluuya has also done phenomenally well on his own accord with electrifying work in Sicario, Widows, and 2018’s Black Panther. Indeed every time one or both of these engaging performers appears on screen, the odds are there that they are giving us a performance that is both complicated, riveting, and always worthy of our attention; something their choices in movies and TV have also been reflecting as well incidentally. With all of that being said, this brings us to the slice of cinematic pie I am reviewing today, the latest release to (as of this writing) soon be hitting both theaters and HBO Max, film helmer Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is a slice of cinematic pie that allows to witness these two incredible icons at the peak of their acting talent in their careers at this point in time. Indeed by regaling us with an incredible and yet also true tale that is both a story that has never been told in a slice of cinematic pie before and yet also one that is more timely than ever, this is one slice of cinematic pie that manages to showcase an engrossing story about backstabbing and perseverance whilst also being placed in a solid foundation consisting of a dynamic duo of electric turns as one plays the iconic Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the other plays William O’Neal aka the notorious snake who infiltrated Hampton’s organization on behalf of the Feds. Indeed whilst there are some moments where the narrative structure does swing and miss, I can promise you that the dynamic duo that is Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, the wonderful supporting cast backing them up, and the riveting narrative being told by this slice of cinematic pie will leave an impact on you in the best way possible.

The plot is as follows: Judas and the Black Messiah all starts because of one stupid person deciding to take part in a crime that is idiotic to the point of hilarity. The criminal in question is one William O’Neal and his crime is he decides to, whilst wearing a low-brim hat and wielding a fraudulent federal agent badge, enter a drinking establishment and accuse a random person in there of having been in possession of a stolen vehicle and then take their keys and then make off with their vehicle himself. If this sounds like a plan that is just waiting to collapse in on itself then hats off to you. Suffice it to say it isn’t long before ol’ Will finds himself with a nice shiny pair of handcuffs on his wrists and some serious possible charges to deal with including officer impersonation and grand theft auto (sorry; not just a video game folks). Indeed it really does look like our man William is going away for quite a while….that is until an actual federal agent by the name of Roy Mitchell offers to help eradicate it for him in exchange for his help on a little matter he is dealing with. A matter that soon sees Mr. O’Neal, in exchange for staying out of jail and a little bit of money on the side, to infiltrate the (in the eyes of law enforcement) infamous and, at the time, growing Black Panther and keep an eye on the Illinois chapter’s head one Fred Hampton. To that end, we see that when he discovers that Hampton can’t drive anywhere due to cops always pulling him over, O’Neal is able to get close to him by offering to be his driver and in the process slowly but surely earning Hampton and rest of the senior members of the party’s trust. However as the pressure is increasingly put on the Panthers by the FBI courtesy of their director one J. Edgar Hoover, and O’Neal continues to give intel to them through Mitchell, we start to see a rising sense of conflict begin to grow within him. This is because not only has it started to dawn on him just what would occur if the Panthers find out that he is an informant, but also because he has actually started to fall under Hampton’s sway as he sees that he, through what he preaches and is trying to achieve in the community, actually is not only a great leader, but also someone who could bring about the change that is so desperately needed…..

Now there really is a fantastic and storied history in the world of movie magic of people going undercover and the bonds that they form with members of those organizations they have infiltrated with some of the finer examples of this particular brand of movie magic ranging from THE ORGINAL (sorry about the big bold letters; just wanted to make sure I got that particular aspect across) Point Break to Donnie Brasco and all the way to the 2006 Martin Scorsese cops and robbers epic The Departed. Indeed, much in the same vein as how those slices of cinematic pie were great to some degree by how terrific the performances within them were, this is one that also showcases that courtesy of some truly dynamic work done by Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya even if their dynamic is not quite what you might be used to. This is because William O’Neal might be the “Law” in this movie, but he is most assuredly not a lover of justice by any means and to see his growth through this movie, courtesy in large part due to Fred, is quite intriguing. Indeed the character of O’Neal is quite the interesting one to play since you are technically portraying a protagonist that is, for all intents and purposes, also the movie’s villain, but the depth that Stanfield manages to bring to the character not only takes into account his faults, but also lets his humanity emerge from the shadows as well. Indeed there can be no denying that greed and looking out for himself is a motivator for why he does what he does, but he is also someone who is stuck in a predicament of his own making as well as the repercussions of what he is engaged in. Now it should be noted that whilst Daniel Kaluuya is not saddled with the integrity dilemma that Stanfield does in his role of Fred Hampton, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his own hurdles to overcome in his job of bringing to life this iconic member of the Black Civil Rights movement. Indeed, as we come to learn in this slice of cinematic pie, what put Fred Hampton on the FBI’s radar was his talent for trying to inspire peace among everyone who was part of the lower echelons of society in Chicago and as such it is quite electrifying to see how energetic Kaluuya manages to become not only in his performance, but in the moments where Hampton is orating to the masses. Indeed it might not be as nice and sweet as some would like, but it is riveting and quite memorable all the same.

Now thanks in large part to how it works with both an intriguing twist on the idea of an individual going undercover and infiltrating for the law another individual’s operation to say nothing of the amount of riveting incidents that occur in the midst of said infiltration, I think it is safe to say that the true saga at the core of this slice of cinematic pie is one that has the weight necessary to operate phenomenally as a narrative movie. At the same time though, you can’t help, but wish that film helmer Shaka King had made the choice to both be a little bit more brazen when it came to the script and a bit more committed when it came to some structural ingredients. The best example of this that comes to mind is the fact that throughout the movie, we witness as it attempts to insert moments where O’Neal was being interviewed in 1990. I mean not gonna lie dear reader: it is quite odd to go back to as it’s only done three times and only in the last one is it the real O’Neal. Yes the last one also delivers quite the emotional blow, but it is a blow that we are given via text that is shown thus leaving you downright befuddled as to why this wasn’t just part of the script to begin with. Indeed rather than engage 100% in a narrative structure that is non-linear, this slice of cinematic pie is one that chooses to put the core narrative first and foremost. As a result, it may be completely respectable due to wanting to give the story of Fred Hampton the justice and respect it deserves, but it is jarring when the movie does try to swing both sides of the pendulum at the same time.

All in all, despite a few minor potholes in the road along the way to this movie’s riveting conclusion, I think it is safe to say that Judas and the Black Messiah really truly is a genuinely great slice of cinematic pie for the world of movie magic to offer up to viewers at this particular time. Indeed this is a slice of cinematic pie that is all at once a potent yet terrifying look at a key moment in the history of this country, a riveting thrill ride, and a spot-on chance for a pair of the finest thespians in the movie industry at this point in time to show just what they can do when allowed to bring 110% to a movie. Suffice it to say then that Judas and the Black Messiah is a dynamic ode to a riveting individual and also a movie that should, I hope, prove to be quite enlightening as well. On a scale of 1-5 I give Judas and the Black Messiah a solid 4 out of 5.