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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of FBI informant William O'Neal's (LaKeith Stanfield) time with the Black Panther Party's Chicago chapter and its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). The film focuses on the racial injustice of the time, including Hampton's eventual death at the hands of the U.S. government. Along with heavy themes about racial, social, and economic injustice, there are scenes involving or alluding to prison violence and torture, gun violence, and violence carried out by local, state, and national governments. Scenes with alcohol and drugs and allusions to sex are also involved, and there's lots of strong language, including both slurs and four-letter words ("f--k," "s--t," the "N" word, and more). Parents and teens who watch together can discuss the power of teamwork and working as a coalition, the history of America's civil rights movement, and how we can learn from the past to help improve the present and future.
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What's the story?
Director Shaka King's JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH offers an in-depth, humanizing look at the Black Panthers' Chicago branch, its leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), and petty thief-turned-informant William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) forces O'Neal to join the Black Panther Party to help the bureau gain intel on the group. But as O'Neal gets entrenched in the Black Panthers' fight for racial and social liberation, he becomes more conflicted about being seen as a traitor to his people. Dominique Fishback co-stars as Hampton's fiancée, Deborah Johnson, who endures the risk of Hampton's rise to prominence while carrying his child.
Is it any good?
This important drama focuses its lens on demystifying the purpose and mission statement of a group once erroneously thought of by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization. Judas and the Black Messiah makes it clear that the U.S. government labeled the Black Panthers a national threat because of their focus on racial liberation, social and economic justice, and unity: all perils to the United States' ability to control the masses through racism and capitalism. That said, Judas and the Black Messiah wants to be both a glowing Hampton biopic and a cautionary tale regarding O'Neal, which might confuse some viewers about its ultimate message. O'Neal's descent into the dark caverns of his mind would have been a more engaging -- and more challenging -- story to tell and would have capitalized on Stanfield's unique talents at portraying off-kilter, resonating characters. As it is, he does quite a lot to keep the film afloat by diving head-first into O'Neal's wavering stance on his Blackness and his position in America. One scene deftly and quickly shows how disturbed O'Neal becomes regarding his role as an informant. And O'Neal's FBI contact, Mitchell, has subtle layers thanks to Plemons' quiet but nuanced performance. The actor does a great job of showing how a White man might navigate the realization that what he's been taught about racism and who "the enemy" is could be horrifyingly incomplete.
Kaluuya, meanwhile, gives playing Hampton the old college try. But his performance tips toward impersonation, complete with an off-center stab at Hampton's unique southern/Chicagoan drawl. His take on Hampton, plus some odd acting tics (such as keeping his head to one side or standing awkwardly yet faux-seriously), makes it seem as if Kaluuya is acting for awards season, rather than the love of the person he's portraying. Fishback's talents shine through in her small role, but she's mostly wasted in yet another portrayal of the strong Black woman behind the Black male revolutionary. We should never forget that these wives and partners in the movement -- like Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz -- also had careers, dreams, and aspirations before meeting their significant others. They should be seen as three-dimensional individuals, not just as someone's wife. Plus, the film itself seems to be written in passive tense, making it hard for some scenes to have the weight they should. The storytelling style also makes the film seem like it's longer than it has to be. Still, despite some issues with story and portrayals, Judas and the Black Messiah can serve as a starting point for viewers who might not know anything about the Black Panthers -- as well as those who want to unlearn what they were incorrectly taught about the organization.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about activism. What does it mean to be an activist? What types of activists are present in society today? How can you incorporate activism in your life?
What is a "rainbow coalition"? Why is it important when discussing civil rights?
What role did the U.S. government and local governments play in the civil rights movement? How did they harm or help? What can governments learn from the past to help activists today? How can we support disadvantaged communities now?
How do you view William O'Neal's actions? Do you consider him a role model? How do you think his legacy will be treated in history?
- In theaters: February 12, 2021
- On DVD or streaming: February 12, 2021
- Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
- Director: Shaka King
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Activism, History
- Character strengths: Teamwork
- Run time: 226 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: violence and pervasive language
- Last updated: February 19, 2021
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