PG Score: 8/10
Judas and the Black Messiah was released in theaters on 2/12/21 and is available for streaming on HBO Max
Judas and the Black Messiah details an unflinching account of one of the Black Panthers’ most influential members. Writer/Director Shaka King’s (Newlyweeds) fact-based drama thrives off candid filmmaking and superb acting from its stars.
The story centers on Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party during the late 1960s. More specifically, it offers a thorough examination of how his downfall was orchestrated by the FBI and their informant, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).
The film moves with incredible pace throughout the entirety of its 126-minute runtime. It maintains its intensity from start to finish without sacrificing a drop of honesty in its execution. Shaka King and Will Berson’s screenplay is ripe with so much insight into the motivations and struggles (both individually and collectively) of the two lead characters that the momentum continues to build even during the slower portions. The conversations are packed with raw energy and touch on topics that are, unfortunately, still all too relevant today. Many of the exchanges contain an engrossing beauty that opens a window to both Fred Hampton’s drive and intellect. There is not one scene devoid of the potent commentary within the soul of Judas and the Black Messiah.
Capturing the Environment
King masterfully brings the late ‘60s Chicago atmosphere to life through smoke-filled pool halls, dilapidated warehouses, crowded auditoriums, and squalid residential buildings. The setting evokes a strong sense of immersion and makes the lasting impression of the movie that much more effective. Composers Craig Harris and Mark Isham are also owed much praise in this department as their music seamlessly fits the rising tension in the plotline, thereby heightening audience engagement.
Handling the Subject Matter
The film employs a successful balance between presenting a comprehensive character study of Hampton and exploring the FBI’s manipulation of O’Neal. Understandably, the two threads meet on numerous occasions, and these instances make for tremendously suspenseful cinema. The explosive sequences are tempered by heartwarming interactions between Hampton and his girlfriend, Deborah (Dominique Fishback). In addition to their sentimental value, these segments also provide a better understanding of how influential the two historical figures were. Their dialogue is just as powerful politically as it is emotionally.
Judas and the Black Messiah relays O’Neal’s plight in an unbiased manner and considering the gravity of the FBI’s exploitation of his predicament, this is quite a feat. His infiltration of the Black Panther Party and Hampton’s inner circle is shown through King’s vigilant eye. The dedication to accuracy and minimization of creative license are apparent from the first frame until the credits roll. While it is only noticeable to a small extent, it is worth noting that this is partially at the expense of the movie’s emotional impact.
The attention to detail does not help paint the FBI in a better light (nor should it) as the magnitude of their immorality in this event is on full display. The relationship between O’Neal and Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) is not only integral to the central story, but it also serves to create some empathy for one of the titular characters. The film includes the full spectrum of emotions that he likely experienced and all of them are expertly communicated through LaKeith Stanfield.
Stanfield unequivocally delivers the best performance of his career in his nuanced portrayal of the notorious FBI informant. He convincingly conveys fear, quickly followed by false bravado in situations where O’Neal’s treachery is in danger of being discovered. The persistent shame, remorse, and war of morals waging internally are all impeccably expressed through Stanfield. He also displays the high points of O’Neal’s time working with Mitchell remarkably well. He is making money and feels a genuine bond with the FBI agent. This was a very complicated individual and Stanfield depicts his complexity with stunning authenticity.
Daniel Kaluuya’s groundbreaking performance as Fred Hampton is deserving of all the praise it has received (and will continue to receive) and then some. He is magnetic as the revered activist, and his astounding range comes into full view. He nails Hampton’s booming speeches, philosophical monologues, and intimate one-on-one discussions with his significant other. The gifted performer flawlessly captures the multidimensional nature of the Black Panther Party leader in producing his most exceptional work yet.
The supporting cast features a host of talent and complements the two leads wonderfully. Dominique Fishback gives a breakout performance as Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (who now goes by Akua Njeri). Her embodiment of a woman in the arduous position of deeply loving someone with such unwavering loyalty to a cause is breathtaking. Jesse Plemons shines as the mercurial Roy Mitchell, whose fluctuation between reassurance and pressure to Stanfield’s O’Neal are adeptly portrayed by the seasoned actor. Martin Sheen makes the most of his minimal screen time as J. Edgar Hoover. Coated in heavy makeup and prosthetics, Sheen illustrates the menacing aura surrounding the former FBI Director.
A Powerful Film in More Ways Than One
Judas and the Black Messiah is a forceful biopic anchored by truthful direction from Shaka King and career-best performances from Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield.