Judas and the Black Messiah
HBO Max/ Warner Brother Pictures
Written by Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth Lewis and Keith Lewis
Directed by Shaka King
Starring Daniel Kaluyya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Dominique Thorne and Martin Sheen
FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). A career thief, O’Neal revels in the danger of manipulating both his comrades and his handler, Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Hampton’s political prowess grows just as he’s falling in love with fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Meanwhile, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul. Will he align with the forces of good? Or subdue Hampton and The Panthers by any means, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) commands?
Movies based on true stories always have a delicate balance to maintain. Stick too close to the facts and you risk becoming a dry, documentary of events. Stray too far and you become historical parody. Judas and the Black Messiah works because it immerses the viewer in the lives of its characters.
LaKeith Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal stands out because he has no point of view in the beginning of the film. He is living for himself and surviving on his wits. He is not a good guy and is never played in a way where you feel sorry for or hope that he changes. One of the most effective parts of Stanfield’s performance is O’Neal’s consistent self interest. Even with the escalating violence and duplicity around him, O’Neal is out for himself and his own survival. The worse thing the filmmakers could have done was give the character some third act epiphany designed to make him more sympathetic and Stanfield perfectly embodies a character in constant fear from all sides.
Daniel Kaluyya is brilliant as Fred Hampton. There is an easy going charm and charisma to his portrayal that also embodies a man at peace with his mission and convictions even as the world around him challenges those things consistently. Kaluyya brings a strength and depth to Hampton, but also allows for the portrayal to be layered with emotion and vulnerability, especially in the scenes between Hampton and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Their relationship has a natural evolution that is rare in most films where the initial connection between characters quickly transitions into sex without a sense of who these people are. Kaluyya and Fishback have great chemistry and that comes across in the performances both apart and together.
The plot definitely delivers on the themes of betrayal and the unchecked power of the government over its people. There are scenes that depict the brutality and violence that many people have consigned to history while forgetting how close those things are to returning if they ever left at all. Shaka King pulls no punches in the depictions of violence on both sides of the issue. There are scenes that showcase the consequences of people being pushed to the edge and the entire film has a steadily growing tension throughout.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a brilliantly done story that goes beyond black pain as drama and delivers nuanced performances from its cast and a story that continues to resonate with this country well into the 21st century.