Review: Judas and the Black Messiah
With stellar performances and an informative narrative, Judas and the Black Messiah is praised by Harvey Isitt
Judas and the Black Messiah feels more like a seasoned professional’s work than only a second directorial feature. Shaka King is one to watch. Having led episodes of High Maintenance and Shrill, King now brings us a timely look at the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter. The story follows FBI informant William O’Neal’s (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltration and ultimate betrayal of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the then Deputy Chairman, and the title’s parallel—drawn between O’Neal and Judas—is both powerful and accurate.
The cast is exceptional and delivers across the board. Kaluuya brings Hampton’s eloquence and magnetism to life, giving yet another electrifying performance. It is perhaps his best to date, which is impressive considering his past roles in Oscar-winners Get Out and Black Panther, as well as the recent gem Queen and Slim. Stanfield gives another outstanding and brave performance as O’Neal (despite somewhat underwritten). He deserves immense credit for finding the humanity and truth in O’Neal, and turning the easily irredeemable Judas of this story into a highly nuanced and even sympathetic figure at times. And, having already enjoyed his performance in Uncut Gems, it will be interesting to see what he does next. One critique however, concerning the two leads, is that you do not appreciate how young they are: Hampton and O’Neal being only 21 and 17, respectively.
Jesse Plemons does an excellent job portraying the soft-spoken scheming Fed Roy Mitchell, and rising star Dominique Fishback leaves an incredible and lasting impression as Hampton’s fellow revolutionary and partner Deborah Johnson, despite her limited dialogue.
To have fully covered the story would have taken a limited series’ running time, so what it accomplishes in the two hours is impressive
Other performances worthy of mention include Dominique Thorne, set to star as the titular hero in the upcoming Disney+ show Ironheart. She certainly makes an impression with the few scenes that she has as fictional, though nonetheless stirring revolutionary, Judy Harmon. On top of this, Lil Rey Howery also makes an incredible cameo toward the end.
So, while the movie is enlightening and very well-made, the sheer size of the project King and co-writer Will Berson undertook makes some points feel brushed over and simplified, and certain characters undervalued. With Hampton forming the Rainbow Coalition with incredible ease and, in what seems like minutes, wins over a group of poor white city residents who front a Confederate flag. To have fully covered the story would have taken a limited series’ running time, so what it accomplishes in the two hours is impressive.
Furthermore, Craig Harris and Mark Isham’s arresting score adds to the intensity of Sean Bobbitt’s Scorsese-esque cinematography. Having already admired his work under director Steve McQueen, his bold close-ups help Kaluuya shine, especially during Hampton’s incredible and inspiring “I am a Revolutionary” speech, as seen in the trailer.
Altogether, Shaka King’s new film is a refreshing exploration of one of the many incredible chapters in the American Civil Rights Movement. It shows how directly involved the government was in dismantling groups such as the Black Panthers, and exposes the FBI’s despicable efforts to stop the emergence of new activist leaders. And, having already proved itself an awards contender after its two Bafta nominations (Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Song), I am excited to see how it will do at the Oscars and hope Kaluuya gets a nomination, at least.
If you are interested in finding out more about Fred Hampton’s life, recommended reading includes Jeffrey Haas’ excellent and extensive book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, as well as the Black Panther Party Reading List.