Damned for All Time
By Sadira Sittampalam
The Black Panther Party was an African American revolutionary party that called for the arming of all African Americans, the exemption of African Americans from the draft, the release of all African Americans from jail, and compensation to African Americans for centuries of exploitation by white Americans. Naturally, this prompted a pretty harsh reaction from the US Government with the Federal Investigation Bureau (FBI) viewing the Black Panther Party as an enemy of the State. And to this end, they used all the tools at their disposal including agent provocateurs, sabotage, misinformation, and lethal force to try and take them down.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a 2021 film that looks at this turbulent time in history, detailing the story of one of the leaders of the Black Panthers Fred Hampton and how the FBI tried to take him down. Politically relevant, empowering, and beautifully shot, this film is a great examination of a pretty unexplored part of the civil rights movement of the USA in the 1960s; perfectly depicting how manipulative, prejudiced, and unjust the actions of the FBI were.
The movie begins with the arrest of William 'Bill' O'Neal. As he impersonates a FBI agent in order to rob someone’s car, he is arrested by an actual FBI agent who offers him a chance to get out of a seven-year prison sentence by infiltrating the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant. While the narrative of this movie isn’t one that is that spectacular since it is only depicting a time in history, the film is still pretty remarkable, with directorial efforts of Shaka King shining through. Everything about this film feels solid, with such assured footing that an earthquake wouldn't’ be able to knock it down. He managed to make everything from the craft elements of the film to the performances mesh together so well, giving us a succinct and well-rounded movie.
First off, the cinematography felt impeccably professional. It wasn’t the standard looks and had a lot of really well done lighting that made the scenes look immaculate and incredibly cinematic. Additionally, the low moody lighting fit the setting really well and especially with the scenes with the FBI, made them seem as sketchy as they were behaving at the time. Usually, with good editing, you don’t really notice many of the edits since they flow seamlessly into the scene, and this is exactly what it felt like in this film. The movie flowed harmoniously even with all of the intentionally messy action sequences.
Speaking of the action sequences, this film choreographed some really epic sequences that were chaotic, unpleasant and bitter; depicting the inherent prejudice of the Police force and the fight of the Black Panther Party to simply stand up for what they believe in. Nevertheless, I actually felt that the speech sequences were actually more invigorating to watch as they produced such a frenzy of empowerment that echoed in the scenes that followed.
Moving onto the performances in the film, both Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and Lakeith Steinfeld as William O’Neal blew me away. Kaluuya was so charismatic while playing Hampton, he really managed to show the audience how Hampton’s audiences must have felt, as I felt so in awe of him as he impassioned people with his fervent speeches. He felt like a real person with flaws and a little bit of idealism, however, you could sense that he truly put his life on the line for his people. Meanwhile, throughout Steinfeld's career, I’ve never seen him play the same character twice. He brings such a unique personality to each of his characters and this one was no exception, depicting O’Neal's struggle in a way that was entirely true to what we know about the real O’Neal.
Overall, this is one movie that I was really surprised by. I was already familiar with this story, so I really didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, but it definitely exceeded my expectations, conveying some really timely themes and shedding light on a part of history that the US Government probably wants us to forget. Watching this really makes you think about how prevalent the discrimination was, the extent to which the Government is able to abuse power and the system of democracy itself. One of my only complaints about this film was the fact that Martin Sheen’s makeup to transform him into J. Edgar Hoover looked really, really fake.