Judas and the Black Messiah is a compelling film held together by its phenomenal lead performances and electrifying story. Award recognition is a must for this film because it features career-changing acting, great direction, and is a phenomenal historical outing. A film many could consider appropriate for the current climate in America, Judas and the Black Messiah is revolutionary.
Judas and the Black Messiah had its world premiere this past Monday at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. A film of this magnitude has been in the works for years, and finally, it has come to fruition. Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party in the 1960s, now has his story told triumphantly. Directed and co-written by Shaka King, the film stars Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, and Lil Rel Howery. Judas and the Black Messiah takes place in the 1960s and follows William O’Neal (Stanfield), a criminal who infiltrates the Illinois Black Panthers to assist the FBI in taking out Fred Hampton (Kaluuya).
Films that focus on betrayal, racial injustice, and other social concerns are always interesting to watch play out. King and co-writer Berson deliver a story that lays out both sides of the situation in the best way possible. O’Neal is a criminal looking at doing time until he begins working with Roy Mitchell (Plemons), the FBI agent that recruited him to infiltrate the Panthers to get closer to Hampton. Hampton is an activist, a self-proclaimed revolutionary who wants social change. Judas and the Black Messiah is mostly told from O’Neal’s point of view, so opportunities are missed due to that decision. For instance, the impact of his betrayal on the Panthers isn’t felt from the film’s ending. The law enforcement’s feelings on Hampton’s pending assassination are evident, but with the film having moments of the Panther’s contemplating double agents amongst them, it was odd to not see the impact O’Neal had on them afterward.
The script terrifically demonstrates that O’Neal was skeptical about his actions throughout and even regretful about the impact he had. The guilt he wrestles with is powerfully brought to life by Stanfield’s performance. Kaluuya shines in his role as Hampton, he’s demanding, empowering, and gives a near-perfect portrayal of the real-life activist. This is arguably Kaluuya and Stanfield’s best performances to date, and the two previously collaborated for Jordan Peele’s debut feature, Get Out. Kaluuya’s acting in this film could earn him an award in the future. King keeps the film engaging with its pacing, building on the angst of the audience as O’Neal’s frustrations gradually increase. The score utilized is equally striking, and assists with the urgency King is aiming for here.
Judas and the Black Messiah is arriving at an appropriate time, and thanks to the wonderful ensemble it certainly won’t go unnoticed. As mentioned above, there are only some minor narrative hiccups, but it’s still a thought-provoking watch. While Kaluuya’s performance might get the most attention, it’s important to note that Stanfield is faking it from a variety of different angles in this film, which is very impressive. Ultimately, O’Neal spends so much time putting on a show for the Panther’s and Roy, that we rarely spend time with his true self. Kaluuya and Stanfield both deserve every bit of attention this film brings to them.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a superb change of scenery from Shaka King. It is the best film to be showcased at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A powerful retelling of betrayal that’s spearheaded by top tier acting that demands your attention. This is a well-told story that could have dug a little deeper but still delivers from every angle overall.