[Screen It]


(2020) (LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya) (R)

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Drama: To avoid prison, a thief is forced by the FBI to infiltrate the local chapter of the Black Panther Party.

It's 1968 Chicago and Bill O'Neal (LAKEITH STANFIELD) is a car thief who makes the mistake not only of being caught, but also of having impersonated a federal agent during that criminal act. His FBI handler, Roy Mitchell (JESSE PLEMONS), informs him of his two options. He can either serve time in prison or he can infiltrate the local chapter of the Black Panther Party as an undercover informant.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (MARTIN SHEEN) has deemed the Panthers a direct threat to the U.S. and white America's way of life, and has set his sights squarely on the rising star and leader of the local chapter, Fred Hampton (DANIEL KALUUYA).

While also working to feed the poor and enacting other similarly non-controversial social reform, he believes revolution is necessary to combat systemic racism and has devoted followers including the likes of Judy Harmon (DOMINIQUE THORNE), Jimmy Palmer (ASHTON SANDERS), Jake Winters (ALGEE SMITH), and new-to-the-fold Deborah Johnson (DOMINIQUE FISHBACK), among many others.

As Bobby contends with the powers that be trying to mitigate his actions and silence his calls for change, Bill continues to work for Mitchell, knowing full well he's risking his life should any of the Panthers learn what he's really doing.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10

There's the old saying that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." While that can obviously apply to many things, it's certainly become quite apparent in terms of how minorities are treated around the world and particularly in the U.S.

For instance, while advancements have been made since the 1960s regarding how African Americans are viewed and treated by white society, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others -- and the associated responses including attempts to justify those murders, as well as the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement -- show that things are pretty much the same in some regards.

That's certainly punctuated upon watching "Judas and the Black Messiah," a well-made, terrifically performed, and thought-provoking look at the real-life events of civil unrest in 1968 Chicago when the police and the Federal Government essentially decided to declare war on the local chapter of the Black Panther Party and its leader, Fred Hampton.

Director Shaka King -- working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Will Berson -- brings to life those tumultuous events in a compelling offering that's sure to infuriate many a viewer that no, things really haven't changed that much during the intervening half-century since FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played here by Martin Sheen) proclaimed Hampton and the BPP as a direct threat to "our way of life" (meaning that of whites and white privilege).

The story, however, doesn't so much revolve around Hampton (terrifically played by Daniel Kaluuya who otherwise dominates every scene he's in) but instead focuses on Bill O'Neill (a good Lakeith Stanfield), a car thief who gets nabbed for impersonating a federal agent. Local FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) gives him the choice of either doing a lot of prison time or infiltrating the local Panther chapter as an undercover informant.

While that actually happened in real life, it's a narrative element we've seen countless times before where the insider repeatedly runs the risk of being discovered while also being drawn into the mindset of those he now identifies with. Granted, the opening scene -- portraying a TV interview O'Neal did decades later -- clearly signals that the protagonist survives that ordeal and thus some of that "oh no, will he survive or not" suspense is mitigated. Thankfully, the way King handles that and the rest of familiar-feeling material should keep most viewers engrossed.

The film then rewinds to the moment O'Neill's caught followed by Mitchell giving his ultimatum and then the thief's introduction to Hampton and that man's charismatic call to action mindset and speeches and his desire to unite the various black power groups into a collective and thus more powerful entity. That further anger-worries Hoover and that trickles down the authority line, eventually leading to the sad, shocking, and infuriating culmination of events.

Bob Dylan's social anthem from a few years earlier than this film is set -- "The Times They Are a-Changin'" -- ends up both accurate and not, all of which makes "Judas and the Black Messiah" both timeless and timely. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 2, 2021 / Posted February 12, 2021

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