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Gripping 'Judas and the Black Messiah' explores timely Civil Rights history

Phil on Film
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Posted at 4:02 PM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 17:02:46-05

TUCSON, Ariz. — A challenging and unflinching look back at a dark moment in the Civil Rights movement, "Judas and the Black Messiah" -- which was slated for release on HBO Max and in theaters Feb. 12 -- tells a story crucial for our times.

William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is a thief who is recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Illinois Black Panther Party and track its visionary leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

With no allies and a constant struggle for his fate at stake, O'Neal faces the continual dark night of the soul, in which he makes choices that will have repercussions on not only his own life but the movement and racial politics as a whole.

This is heavy stuff, and director Shaka King proves able to step up to the task. A veteran of TV shows including "Shrill" and "High Maintenance," King shows a smooth command of gritty realism.

He tells his story in brief, impactful vignettes that sometimes only loosely relate to one another, but serve a higher purpose of sketching out the scene and feel of the time.

Hampton, who was assassinated at age 21 in 1969 in police and FBI raid, was a rising star in the Civil Rights movement.

Kaluuya brings him to life as a man of brilliance and vision, bearing a tendency to act impulsively. The effort to craft a well-rounded portrait of the man helps ground the film.

It's Stanfield and Golden Globe nominee Kaluuya who shine brightest, but King's able ensemble provides key support. Dominique Fishback thrives as Deborah Johnson, whose budding romance with Hampton adds significant heft to the tragedy.

Jesse Plemons does an admirably bumbling job of playing FBI handler Roy Mitchell, who constantly ratchets up the pressure on O'Neal.

A grim reminder of our government and law enforcement's past -- as well as a hint of its present -- indifference to racial politics, "Judas and the Black Messiah" is a hauntingly intense drama that deserves to be seen, discussed, and remembered.

RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4.
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This story was originally published by Phil Villarreal at KGUN in Tucson, Arizona.