‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

Judas and the Black Messiah” is certainly a timely film with all of the issues that exist in the world today regarding racism.  Even though some strides have been made, we still have a long way to go until things are where they need to be in this world.  Systemic racism is a serious issue, and it doesn’t seem like there is a day that goes by where we are not hearing about a black man or woman being killed by someone in a position of power.  It is why films like this one are so important.  Many people do not watch or read the news.  When they see it in a major motion picture, it can sometimes raise their level of awareness.  That is the power of cinema at its finest.

Our film starts off in the late 1960’s when we meet William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a small-time criminal who goes around waving a badge in order to steal cars.  As he says in the film, the badge carries more weight than a gun because everyone knows there is an army behind that badge. When he is caught, he is forced to enter into a deal with Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to work undercover for the FBI.  If William does not accept this deal, he is facing eighteen months in prison for stealing a car along with five years for impersonating an officer.  He has to go undercover to keep an eye on what is happening with the Black Panther Party in Illinois, which is run by the charismatic and powerful Fred Hampton played by Daniel Kaluuya in an Oscar-winning performance.

Both Kaluuya and Stanfield were nominated for Best Supporting Actor for their work here, but I would have to say that I’d give the edge to Stanfield as he has to play a dual-role as a member of the Black Panther Party while also trying to keep Roy and the FBI happy.  While Kaluuya had to give more of a boisterous and in-your-face performance, Stanfield has to balance all of the moral dilemmas his character has to endure throughout the film. He wears all of this on his face and on screen with his stunning performance.  That being said, I understand it can be difficult to compare performances in different films let alone the same film and the same category.

As soon as Fred Hampton starts to gain some steam and bring people together to form the Rainbow Coalition, which is all-inclusive and a real threat to the infrastructure, greed, and abuse of power which is happening all around Illinois, he is sent to jail on some phony ice-cream theft charges.  This is when William O’Neal starts to have more responsibility put on his plate with the Black Panther Party.  He is up for the task, and he holds his own especially when it comes to security.  There is another element for Fred to consider and that is his budding romance with Deborah (Dominique Fishback).  She gives a vulnerable yet commanding performance as a young woman who is not afraid to have Fred’s back.

When Fred is finally released from prison, things get even more complicated with the Black Panther Party and the FBI’s director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).  They are starting to see that Fred Hampton is a real threat and is bringing about real change for people.  The fact he is able to unite so many people of different races and cultural backgrounds is nothing short of amazing. He’s a true hero. At this point, William O’Neal is forced to make some difficult decisions for himself.  He has the Black Panther Party, which is, at times, suspicious of him.  He also has the FBI, which wonders if he really believes in what Fred Hampton is fighting for, each and every single day.

I’m a huge fan of the adult drama that is inspired by true events in Hollywood.  I think whenever a film can entertain and educate an audience, it’s really something to behold, and this film really stayed with me long after it was over.  It’s a powerful piece of filmmaking that is one of the best films of 2020. It features fantastic performances from top to bottom.  I mentioned the two supporting actors earlier, but to me, they are both the leads in this film.  I just feel as though Stanfield is on screen longer and has a meatier role than Kaluuya in this film.  There also must be credit given to Plemons.  Even though he is the bad guy in the film, there are a lot of layers to him.  It’s not a cardboard cutout bad guy. It must also be noted from a historical point of view, this was the first film with an all-black producing team to be nominated in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards.  This is a well-acted, well-written, and supremely intense film from start to finish. I can’t recommend it enough.

* * * * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Special Features:

Fred Hampton for the People

Unexpected Betrayal

Blu-Ray Info:

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray with a digital copy from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  The film has a running time of 126 minutes and is rated R for violence and pervasive language.

Video/Audio Info:

The film has a 1080p/2.39:1 High-Definition transfer which really enhances the look and feel of the late 60’s into the early 70’s.  The audio is featured on the following formats: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and English Descriptive Audio with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the kind of film which reminds me of why I love moves in the first place.  This is not a feel-good movie if you are familiar with the story at all, which I was not prior to watching it, but it proves a serious point that needs to be made.  It creates conversation, and it shows off some of the best acting I’ve seen in a very long time.  As mentioned earlier, I’ve always felt film is at its best when it tells stories which are worth telling and can open minds to what others in the world and are going through in their day-to-day lives.  The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, but I would have enjoyed a few more special features and maybe a detailed documentary on the real-life story.  Still, this is a film that you should add to your collection for the phenomenal acting and storytelling which is on display throughout.

Selma

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Had “Selma” been released a number of years ago, people would probably just see it as another movie which chronicles a historical moment which has long since passed us by. But with all the upheaval in places like Ferguson, Missouri where violence against people of color is increasing substantially and the Voting Rights Act having taken a very unnecessary hit, this movie could not be timelier. What we see in “Selma” now feels like prologue as the fight for equal rights continues on to this very day. By now we should very well know we’re not living in a post-racial society.

“Selma” takes us back to the year 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and several others led marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to obtain equal voting rights for African Americans. It was tough times indeed as Dr. King faces an uphill battle with everyone including President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) who is not quick to pass a Voting Rights Act as he is still dealing with civil unrest in the South which he is desperately trying to get under control. But King knows this is not an issue that can wait much longer to be addressed.

I have got to start off by saying David Oyelowo is a powerhouse in his portrayal of Dr. King, and he holds our attention completely from the very first moment he appears onscreen. It should be noted how Oyelowo campaigned for this role for seven years and managed to keep it even after the original director, Lee Daniels, departed the project. I have seen Oyelowo do memorable work in movies like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Lincoln” and “A Most Violent Year,” but I couldn’t find a trace of him in “Selma.” It felt like I was really watching Martin Luther King Jr. resurrected and walking among us again. Not once does Oyelowo succumb to doing a mere impersonation of the man who had a dream we still want to see become a reality. There’s a saying that in the theater you play a character and in film you are the character, and Oyelowo is definitely the man here.

The other big star of “Selma” is its director Ava DuVernay who brings this ever so important story to life so vividly. Granted, in some ways her presentation of the 60’s feels a little routine, and some scenes feel one-sided when they shouldn’t. Her portrayal of the marches, however, is appropriately devastating as she makes you feel ever blow inflicted by those afraid of change. These scenes do not leave the mind easily. King and his supporters are determined to protest in a non-violent way, and it’s hard not to feel for them when their supporters are being beaten senselessly. Deep down you want to see them fight back against the brutality even though we’re aware to do so will be giving the opposition far more ammunition than they deserve.

“Selma” also features a wealth of great performances from actors like Oprah Winfrey who channels her inner Sofia (the character she played in “The Color Purple”) for her role as Annie Lee Cooper who, at the movie’s start, is cruelly denied the opportunity to register to vote. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson as he adds layers to the former President which the screenplay doesn’t always give him. Tim Roth also turns in a strong performance as George Wallace, the always welcome Wendell Pierce is excellent as Hosea Williams, and Dylan Baker is ever so effective as J. Edgar Hoover to where I ended up trying to remember the actor’s name while watching this film.

Another performance worth giving special note to is Carmen Ejogo’s as Coretta Scott King. Ejogo played this role previously in the 2011 movie “Boycott.” She and Oyelowo have a great scene together when she questions him about his alleged infidelity, and no music score is needed to empower it as DuVernay wisely focuses on the actors for all they are worth. Watching these actors here makes for one of the most compelling scenes I have seen in any 2014 movie.

Is “Selma” accurate to what actually happened in history? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. All that matters to me is that it is true to the spirit of the facts more than anything else. We are beyond the point where we should expect movies “based on a true story” to be completely accurate to what actually occurred because dramatic considerations have to be taken into effect. While some argue Johnson was more open to King’s request for voting rights than he was shown to be here, there’s no denying the one most passionate about this issue was King himself. Whether or not this movie fails on a historical accuracy level, it does succeed on a dramatic one.

Having said all this, I kind of wished “Selma” didn’t paint a number of its character in such broad strokes. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” which observed its characters, regardless of color or nationality, with a lot more thoughtfulness and dimension. The fact that “Selma” doesn’t quite succeed in doing this is a bit frustrating, but it doesn’t take away from the powerful effect the movie will have on those who take the time to see it.

“Selma” doesn’t just take us back to an important period in history; it reminds us of the things we as Americans should be fighting for. The movie shows many people of different races and religions joining Dr. King in this fight for an equality no one should have to fight for in this country. But here we are years later, and it turns out the fight is far from over. Once again, we have a lot to learn from history.

* * * ½ out of * * * *