Racial tensions and the sins of the United States over the years leave scars that reverberate for generations. The pain the country went through in the 1960s has recently been reflected in modern society, so it’s only nature that art would do the same. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an angry, moving, and essential film about the betrayal of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton. This story should rightly be the shame of a nation, but it’s all too rarely touched up on in history. For some, Hampton’s fate as depicted in The Trial of the Chicago 7 could be their introduction to the man. Well, luckily, this exceptional movie is here to tell you more, in blisteringly real detail.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a riveting and expertly crafted examination of personal, political, and social injustice. A powder keg of anger and emotion, you won’t be able to shake it off, and that’s the intent. You’ll feel like you’ve been through something, to say the least. This is what a biographical film, at its best, is capable of achieving.
Full disclosure: as some of you know, I know one of the film’s co-writers, Keith Lucas, on a personal level. We were former colleagues, so if you choose to discount this review, so be it. Just know that I put my personal feelings aside, like any good critic should. The movie stands on its own, independent of an affection I may have for Lucas.
Career thief William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is expecting to go to jail when he’s arrest for his latest crime. He isn’t expecting the FBI, in the form of Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to recruit him. However, that’s just what happens, allowing O’Neal to escape prison time. Tasked with infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, he grows close to its charismatic leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Before long, he’s earned the trust of both Hampton and Mitchell, something O’Neal takes a form of pride in, believing that he’s manipulating both for his own benefit. History will say otherwise.
While Hampton is developing a relationship with a fellow revolutionary in Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), O’Neal is getting in deeper with the Feds. When FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) instructs Mitchell to find a permanent solution to their Hampton problem, O’Neal is put in an impossible situation. Something has to give, with lives hanging in the balance. The historical record says what happened, but here we see why it might have gone down as it tragically did.
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield have never been better than they are here. Kaluuya is amazing, giving Fred Hampton the stature that makes you want to run through a wall for him. The more the actor demonstrates his charisma, intelligence, and dedication to the cause, the the more you’re pained by Hampton’s ultimate fate. Stanfield, too often underrated in this business, is terrific as well, bringing layers to a character that easily could have eluded a lesser actor. We feel for William O’Neal, even if we rage at the choices he’s willing to make. Supporting players like Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, and Martin Sheen have their small moments, but this is a showcase for Kaluuya and Stanfield, to be sure.
Shaka King, alongside cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, gives the flick a really sharp look. This will go down as some of the year’s most underrated cinematography, as Bobbitt does his normally sterling work. King’s direction is laser focused on the story at hand, keying you into the emotions. The screenplay, penned by Will Berson and King, with Story By credits going to Keith Lucas and Kenny Lucas, deftly weaves two tales together. Some of the supporting characters are given the short end of the stick, but with how well-realized Hampton and O’Neal are, it’s hard to muster up too much in the way of complaints. The four writers, coming together to merge two screenplay ideas into one sterling script, hone in on the anger and pain inherent in the story. In doing that, while keeping things cinematically entertaining, they more than achieve their goals.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a gem. Whether Oscar gives it its due is besides the point, as this is essential cinema. As it enters theaters and is released on HBO Max, it’s a must-see, plain and simple. Don’t miss it.