Judas and the Black Messiah does not waste time setting up the core plot of the film. Within the first few minutes, we are introduced to the FBI’s vendetta against Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), followed by the introduction of Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty thief who pretends to be a plainclothes cop to steal cars. Rather than go to jail for six years for impersonating a police officer and stealing a car, the FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) makes him an offer to become an FBI informant to infiltrate the Black Panthers.
Judas and the Black Messiah Delivers Career-Defining Performances and Uncomfortable History Lessons
Set in 1960s Chicago, Judas and the Black Messiah is based on the true events surrounding the assassination of the Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, and the involvement of Bill O’Neal who was the informant that provided the intel that led to Fred Hampton's murder at the hands of the Chicago police. Writer-director Shaka King balances the duality of the story with deft skill, building the tension and showcasing the cause and effect of each character’s actions.
It should come as no surprise that Daniel Kaluuya has already picked up several Best Supporting Actor nominations ahead of Judas and the Black Messiah’s theatrical release. He is easily one of the best performers of his generation and the film showcases his talent. The subtle romance between Fred and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) is cleverly utilized to showcase his life beyond his activism and provide him with quieter moments between heated encounters with the Crowns or the Confederate sympathizers.
The film’s title resonates with the parable of Jesus and Judas, which King has used to tell Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal’s story. King could have easily opted to position the audience in Fred’s shoes for the entirety of the film, but instead, we follow along with Bill’s unsettling journey as an FBI informant. Stanfield makes for a sympathetic protagonist, even if his actions situate him alongside the antagonists of the film.
O’Neal’s FBI handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), is a frustratingly accurate portrayal of a character in his position. He seems wholly unsettled by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and his racism-fueled rants about Fred Hampton, yet he is unremorseful when he compares the Black Panthers to the Klan and orchestrates the raid.
King’s screenplay and direction provide the entire cast with all of the tools to build a spectacular performance and they succeed — tenfold.
The production design stands out by creating lived-in scenes; whether the characters are at home, at the bar, or driving through the streets of Chicago (or Cleveland, Ohio) it feels perfectly at home within the 1960s. The design is only strengthened with the film’s soundtrack, expert sound mixing, and editing. It is a travesty that this film hasn’t picked up more nominations because it excels at every turn.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a riveting and timely film. It transforms textbook 1960s civil strife into the realities of the coordinated conflict perpetrated by the local and national law enforcement agencies. Stanfield and Kaluuya bring duality with their anxiety-driven and power-fueled performances.
Judas and the Black Messiah opens in select theaters on February 12th and will be available to stream on HBO Max for one month beginning February 12th.