Ever since I became single a few years ago, I’ve had a personal tradition every Valentine’s Day to watch a new movie in a theater as a means of escaping from the real world. Two years previous I watched Alita: Battle Angel (2019), the year after that I saw Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), and this year I watched a film called Judas and the Black Messiah. Unlike the last two films that were perfect for (though not perfect in quality) escaping reality, Judas and the Black Messiah is not an escape but rather a tale about race discrimination told through a contemporary perspective. I thought about watching another film but due to the ongoing pandemic my choices to see a newly released films on the big screen were slim, and I wanted to continue my annual tradition. Did I make the right choice to see this one? Let’s find out and there will be minor spoilers.
In Judas and the Black Messiah we follow Bill O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief who gets into trouble with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for not only stealing a car but also impersonating an FBI agent. Avoiding jail time, Bill makes a deal with FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) where he’s asked to be an informant for them and infiltrate the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther party run by Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Fred has accumulated quite a following within the Chicago area and, according to J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), is considered a threat due to the Black Panther’s controversial ideology. As the story progresses Bill becomes more acquainted with Fred and from there he gets caught in the middle of helping the FBI while at the same time giving his support to a group of people to which he has grown closer.
After watching Judas and the Black Messiah, I can say with confidence that this truly wasn’t an escape from reality as I predicted. For one it has some a sense of relevance to it, and secondly there were moments that were hard to watch because of race discrimination. Yet, despite that, it is a film that I enjoyed watching. That’s mainly because of the history of the events in the film that I was unaware of and how certain characters parallel historic Biblical ones presented in this film.
If you watch the trailer and look at the title of Judas and the Black Messiah, then you can tell which characters represent certain Biblical figures. For example, our lead character Bill perfectly fits the description of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and led to Our Savior’s Crucifixion. Unlike the Judas that we’re most familiar with, Bill is seen somewhat of a sympathetic character who is trying to get by because of the situation that he’s in. This may sound like a far-fetched statement at first, but the film finds a way for you to root for Bill even though some of actions may be viewed as unforgivable, such as betraying Fred Hampton at the end. I think the main reason why I sympathize with Bill is that much like Judas he does feel guilty for betraying someone he had become close. The film also mentions how he suffers the same fate, though fortunately it’s mentioned through the epilogue rather than showing the action.
With Bill as Judas that would leave Fred as the Black Messiah a.k.a Jesus in Judas and the Black Messiah. Now, to say Fred is a Jesus type figure is a bit of a far cry because of his extreme views. However, he’s the only person in this film that fits that description. Fred was a character that I was drawn to because of how he wanted to unite all groups of people not just members of the black community. There’s a scene where him and other Black Panthers reach out to an all-white congregation in order to unite against police brutality in the Chicago area. While there was tension between two groups, he successfully rallies them on their side and did it in a non-violent way. He was the type of character that, while he had controversial views, I wanted to look more into because of his diverse approach. Any film that piques my curiosity of a certain character like that is something I appreciate.
When it comes to any flaws that Judas and the Black Messiah has, I couldn’t think of any major ones, though it’s not perfect by any means. While there were great filmmaking moments scattered throughout, it didn’t distract me from noticing the overly lengthy scenes that could’ve been trimmed a bit. I say this because I was discreetly checking my phone during those scenes and I almost nodded off for a little bit. Then again, the 24 oz. of cider and the nine-hour shift I worked before I saw the film may have contributed to my tiredness. But once the film progressed even more and the tension grew between the two leads, I became more awake. I can only guess as to how different my opinion would be if I saw this at home because just like the movie The Little Things, this is also on HBO Max. But I chose to see in a theater for the reasons previously mentioned.
Is Judas and the Black Messiah perfect? Unfortunately, it’s not, and it’s something that may not sit well with others because of the race tensions presented in this film. However, it’s a film that I’m glad that I got the opportunity to watch for several reasons. For starters, it made me want to look into the history of Fred Hampton a little bit more, and it got me thinking about Jesus and His relationship with Judas. It seems fitting that I saw this with Lent beginning and Easter right around the corner as of this review. Not only that, but it’s something worth watching because of this month being Black History Month. I always like to learn more about different types of black figures in American History, whether they were controversial or not. Hopefully the next Valentine’s movie that I see will be less tension filled, but just as great as this one. But then again, I hope I don’t go into it alone like I did with this one.