Judas And The Black Messiah is profound. The film does not feed you a spoonful of sugar to make the harsh reality of its premise go down. From Shaka King’s bold directing, to Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield’s inspired performances, the film exudes a tragic brilliance.
Based on the true story of The film tells the Black Panthers Chairman Fred Hampton and FBI informant William O’Neal. Judas And The Black Messiah takes the audience on a deep dive through the shocking and gripping journey of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The film follows O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield, as he is tasked by the FBI to spy on Chairman Fred. With the film using historical figures, the characterizations of both O’Neal and Hampton drive the film in an ultra-realistic and soul-striking way.
Rounding out the main case is Special Agent Roy Mitchell, played by Jesse Plemons, and revolutionary Deborah Johnson, played by Dominique Fishback. Both provide something unique to the film, Mitchell playing the closest thing to a primary antagonist and Johnson bringing a softness to the overall sharp as knives story. By-in-large, the story focuses on the soul searching and ethical dilemma of O’Neal. While the real-life of O’Neal is written in the history books and not necessarily a spoiler to the film, for the purpose of this review, I will not be touching on the harrowing details.
Judas And The Black Messiah, if described in one word, is ruthless. As mentioned before, King will not hold your hand through the film. Every tragic detail is put to film in a way to make the audience feel that they were there. You feel like you’re in the same room that the Black Panthers stood, hear the recoil of every gunshot by the police, and be put into the shoes of the two protagonists as they go through their destinies. Knowing the path these men walked, we’re walked in real life, make it that much more gripping, tragic, and horrific. This is backed up by the performances. Let’s start with the ‘Judas’ of the film. LaKeith Stanfield has quickly established himself as one of the better actors of the last five years and he doesn’t disappoint here. His performance as William O’Neal is brutally honest. There is a moment in the film where you get to see the real O’Neal through archive footage and only then do you realize how life-like Stanfield’s performance truly was.
Where Stanfield’s performance was a mix of tragic, heartbreaking, infuriating, and harrowing, Kaluuya’s performance conveyed the opposite. Kaluuya is the ‘Black Messiah’ that the title teases. The secondary protagonist of the film, but the true protagonist when put into a real-world context, Kaluuya’s performance as Chairman Fred Hampton is inspiring, motivating, energizing, and galvanizing. The true magic of the film happens when Stanfield and Kaluuya share scenes together. From the beginning, you are told to look at the film through Stanfield’s eyes. The eyes of an FBI-informant always on the bring of being killed by both sides. This gives you a natural reason to root for him as an underdog. As the film goes on, you shift perspectives to Kaluuya’s eyes. Only then, do you realize the consequences at play.
Without getting into spoilers, I do recommend everyone to read about Black Panthers Chairman Fred Hampton and the real-life he walked. The man has a strong history connected to the Civil Rights movement, a legacy that still stands today. It is also worth reading about the tragedy of FBI informant William O’Neal, even if after seeing the film.
Overall, Judas And The Black Messiah is an easy candidate for best film of the year. Seen through King’s ruthless vision and backed up by Kaluuya and Stanfield, the film is shocking, tragic, gripping, and bold. A must-watch.