Time: 126 Minutes
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton
Lakeith Stanfield as William “Bill” O’Neal
Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell
Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson
Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer
Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover
Darrell Britt-Gibson as Bobby Rush
Lil Rel Howery as Wayne
Algee Smith as Jake Winters
Director: Shaka King
Offered a plea deal by the FBI, William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
I heard about Judas and the Black Messiah for a while, I already liked the actors involved, but it was the trailer that made it stand out for me. It then quickly became one of my most anticipated movies and it especially came up in awards conversations, particularly with the performances. It was pushed back to the next year but was released early enough so that it could make it to the current upcoming awards season. Judas and the Black Messiah definitely lived up to the acclaim and expectations.
Judas and the Black Messiah is written incredibly well and is captivating from beginning to end. It’s tightly scripted and compelling, with a strong energy and an intense atmosphere throughout. One of the standout aspects that makes the movie work so well is that it doesn’t feel like a typical biopic, probably because it isn’t. In some ways it feels more like a historical drama/thriller about one person infiltrating a group, and that helps it work even better if anything. The film at its core is about Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, as well as FBI informant William O’Neal who infiltrates the Black Panther Party. Both storylines get roughly the same amount of screentime and are presented with equal weight, representing an important perspective of a significant time period. The movie is tough to watch at times, it’s a hauntingly tragic powerhouse of a drama that is riveting, even if (and especially if) you know how it ends. One of the biggest surprises of the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from painting the police and the FBI as the bad guys, and it also unapologetic with showing Hampton’s leftist views, both of which you wouldn’t think that a big budget awards movie would do. As you can probably tell from the subject matter, the movie is timely, meaningful and impactful to today’s society. It’s a smart and uncompromising tragedy about fear and power that’s likely to keep you on edge and hooked throughout.
The acting from everyone in this movie is great. Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton, and he didn’t just play him, he truly becomes him. His performance is magnetic and commands a lot of attention every time he’s on screen. He’s not portraying Hampton as a martyr or a hero, but a real person who is fighting for his rights. He inhabits the role perfectly, exuding the same emotions one would expect from him. He’s sensational here, every single line delivery has passion, and those big speeches are where he particularly shines. It’s likely because of Kaluuya’s standout performance that some might forget Lakeith Stanfield’s layered performance as informant William O’Neal, which might be his best work to date. We see much of the film through his eyes, showing us what he went through. Surprisingly, the film never truly demonises his character, bringing sympathy to the role of someone who sold out his own people. You can feel the turmoil within him as he questions whether he’s doing the right thing, as well as the paranoia and shame that eats away at him throughout. It does feel like his role is a bit underwritten, but the performance does a lot to make up for that. The supporting cast in Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, and Ashton Sanders also deliver some great work too.
Shaka King’s direction is great, he has a very sleek and unique style of filmmaking. From the cinematography, to the production design, the costumes and the score, everything was perfectly constructed. It’s particularly shot beautifully, and the way the ‘action’ scenes were filmed were interesting. King’s makes the film feel very grounded and really helped add to the intense atmosphere in the film.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a bold and fantastic film that deserves all the praise and accolades. It’s directed incredibly well, it’s written masterfully, and the performances are extraordinary, especially from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. Watch it as soon as you get the chance to.