Director Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is the latest film from Warner to get short-changed on physical media after a brief theatrical and HBO Max run.
The Production: 4/5
After being arrested for grand theft auto and impersonating a federal officer, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is offered a choice by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – certain jail time or infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and provide information on its leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neal quickly learns that Hampton really wants peace, making alliances with other gangs and militia groups, providing free breakfasts for communities, and encouraging those in the community to vote with his empowered speeches which formed the Rainbow Coalition.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), however, paints a much different picture of Hampton, that of a violent insurrectionist that must be stopped at all cost, including placing other informants inside to incite violence on their own. This leads to Hampton’s arrest, but not before falling in love with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who discovers Hampton is quiet and reserved when not engaged in public speaking. While in jail, O’Neal continues his work as an informant, rising in the ranks of the party as a captain of security, essentially becoming Hampton’s bodyguard when he is released from prison pending his appeal.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an allegorical title as we find out in the third act, telling the true story of Bill O’Neal, who confessed to these events in an interview on the 1992 PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize II and ultimately committed suicide just after his segment aired. The film is filled with strong performances, particularly its leads LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya (who took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance), Dominique Fishback, and Jesse Plemons. The one weak link in the cast is Martin Sheen, not so much for his performance per se, as he is very good, but the all too obvious prosthetics used to make him look like J. Edgar Hoover. It is a powerful story, with some nice quiet character moments throughout, but is not an easy film to watch due to its subject matter. It’s a film that should be seen, but it is not one I would reach for as a piece of entertainment.
3D Rating: NA
Warner has released Judas and the Black Messiah on Blu-ray, despite the fact that the film was a 4K production (captured at 4.5K, finished as a 4K digital intermediate), streamed on HBO Max in UHD, and is available to rent and purchase from digital retailers such as Vudu and Apple TV in UHD. Much of this film takes place at night or in dark interiors, and this Blu-ray does a good job handling shadow details, but HDR would certainly have helped here, bringing out those details even further. Still, the Blu-ray manages to provide natural and not overly saturated colors and a good sense of depth.
Warner has usually been very good at including a Dolby Atmos track on its Blu-ray releases if it is available. Judas and the Black Messiah played theatrically and streamed on HBO Max in Dolby Atmos, and the digital UHD version on Vudu and Apple TV include a Dolby Atmos track. Unfortunately, Warner has provided this Blu-ray release with a very good DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, but alas no Atmos track. The 5.1 track has good surround activity, with a wide front soundstage. Sounds move almost seamlessly around the room (even more seamless on the Atmos track I sampled with my digital copy on Apple TV). LFE presence is very good as well, adding emphasis to gunshots where necessary. Dialogue is clear and mostly understandable throughout (Kaluuya’s dialogue is sometimes hard to decipher, but that is more a testament to his acting method than the sound mix).
Special Features: 2/5
Fred Hampton for the People (1080p; 9:19): A typical EPK piece with the cast and crew discussing the life of the real Fred Hampton.
Unexpected Behavior (1080p; 7:47): Another typical EPK piece, this time the cast and crew discuss the life of the real William (Bill) O’Neal.
Digital Copy: An insert contains a code to redeem a digital HD copy on Movies Anywhere.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful film, but is rather shortchanged in its release on physical media (no separate 4K release, no Dolby Atmos track on Blu-ray).
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