Reel Dad: 'Judas and the Black Messiah' confronts racial history

“Judas and the Black Messiah” was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Film Festival / Contributed photo

Tragedies of recent years remind us of how much work we have ahead to reach lasting peace between races. If history teaches anything, it’s that we can progress as people if we approach each other with respect and fairness. But only when we willingly revisit disturbing times, and savor lessons once taught, can we hope to avoid repeating the same unfortunate steps in the future.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” joins a remarkable collection of films from the past year that highlight the missteps addressing racial tension in the U.S. This remarkable epic recreates, in painstaking detail, sordid events of the late 1960s when the FBI believed it essential to embed an informant into the Black Panther Party to control one of the organization’s leaders, Fred Hampton. Informing public opinion would not be enough; the agency was determined to limit Hampton’s ability to influence how people would react to its efforts to improve day-to-day life for millions.

Like the best epics, “Judas” projects the scale of its story while helping us get to know its central characters. Hampton emerges as a thoughtful, outspoken man in his early 20s, with a maturity that belies his age. As the leader of a movement, he reaches beyond personal aspirations to confront larger issues his followers must digest. Hampton brings a selfless commitment to his work, sincerely believing the cause is larger than the followers while the informant, William O’Neal, makes his motives as mysterious as possible. The film carefully explores how these men, individually and together, help us see who they can be while realizing who they are. And, like the characters in the film, we aren’t always sure which one we can trust.

As Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya delivers an award-worthy performance of depth and power that solidifies the promise he demonstrated as the reluctant hero in “Get Out” a couple of years ago. Every choice he makes strengthens the film, from how he recreates the character’s sounds while speaking to how he slowly reveals the softness in the man’s heart. Kaluuya makes us care for Hampton as a person as well as for the progress the leader seeks by humanizing the film’s historical ambitions. As O’Neal, LaKeith Stanfield works the other side of authenticity, creatively projecting a man’s ambiguity without casting judgment on his motives. How the actors authentically connect strengthens the film. At any given moment, any artificial moments between them would weaken the history lesson. These actors make us believe.

Writer/director Shaka King connects a lot of dots into a cohesive picture of a complex nation at a turning point. Here is a small movie that feels big, as well as a big movie with the courage to be small as King balances significant sequences that fill a wide screen with quiet moments that focus on a few. The moviemaker makes us want to learn more about a crucial chapter of racial history no matter how difficult it may be to relive.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” runs 2 hours, 6 minutes. The film is rated R for “violence and pervasive language”. It will open in theaters and on HBO Max on Feb. 12. For more information about this year’s Sundance Film Festival, go to festival.sundance.org .

Summary: Judas and the Black Messiah

Content: High. As the film recreates turbulent moments in our nation's history it reminds us that, unless we are careful, it could happen again and again.

Entertainment: High. The serious messages come to life as writer/director Shaka King restages a moment of time we need to remember.

Message: High. Anyone who cares about a community, and the fairness that people share, should savor this picture of what can happen when people are driven to fear.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with children about the relations between races is essential at any time, especially now.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Despite its violent sequences and tough language, you and your older children should share this film for the messages it so thoughtfully conveys.