Judas and the Black Messiah, 2021.
Directed by Shaka King.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Graham Lutes, Martin Sheen, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Dominique Thorne, Amari Cheatom, Caleb Eberhardt, Lil Rel Howery, Jermaine Fowler, Robert Longstreet, Nick Fink, Terayle Hill, Nicholas Velez, and Ian Duff.
The story of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his fateful betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal.
If Judas is symbolic of FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) with the chairman of the Black Panther Illinois party Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) serving as the Black Messiah, and I was tasked with comparing FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to an iconic figure in Judas and the Black Messiah, I would be able to do so easily but I wouldn’t be reaching back into biblical tales. Blackmail accounted for, there is also a wormy uncomfortable exchange where Roy Mitchell is persuading Bill that by infiltrating the ranks of the Black Panthers for incriminating evidence to be turned over to his department, he goes as far as to say that group is no different than actual terrorists. Rather than say there are very fine people on both sides, Roy Mitchell here resembles a sort of pre-Donald Trump type using the same tactics of manipulation, just with different wording. Essentially, the film could also accurately be titled Judas, the Black Messiah, and alternative Donald Trump. Hey, if he can spout off BS like alternative facts I can equate him to an alternative person in a movie.
In a creative decision taken advantage of for maximum empathy, relatively newcomer director Shaka King (his filmmaking here is just as revelatory as the electrifying story itself, co-writing the script alongside Will Berson with additional story credits going to Keith and Kenneth Lucas) has chosen to tell this complicated story of internal affairs and betrayal through the eyes of William O’Neal (a gripping turn conveying the guilt and weight that LaKeith Stanfield expresses by upping the heaviness of his body language the darker the situation becomes), immediately setting a noirish undercover mood as he walks down the street with Sean Bobbitt’s photography fixated on the ground and the lower half of his body, capturing the swaying of his detective attire as if he’s Humphrey Bogart. Judas and the Black Messiah routinely makes use of stylistic shots that also elevate engagement levels, but the important distinction to make for now is that Bill (as he likes to be referred to) is actually impersonating an FBI agent, clearly lost and misguided following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., starting trouble with his own people and committing grand theft auto to boot.
Naturally, it’s not long before his behavior catches up with him, ensnaring him into actually working for the FBI rather than serving up to five years in prison. It just so happens that the FBI also sees any rise of Black power as something to fear just as much as communism and newly forming leftist ideologies (if you would like a good companion piece to Judas and the Black Messiah, also be sure to check out the recently released documentary MLK/FBI to dive more into the rabbit hole of shady practices oppressing Black voices). Admittedly, this is realized with a bit of a cartoonish performance from a sporadically appearing Martin Sheen as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover with the silver lining here being some impressive makeup effects, but it’s also tough to argue with actual history documenting all of this irrational fear-mongering and hatred.
Nevertheless, we are taken inside the ranks of the Black Panther party bearing witness to a sizzling portrayal of Fred Hampton by Daniel Kaluuya that’s tapped into off the chart levels of charisma combined with real passion and social convictions. Believe the hype, he is without question the front runner for Best Supporting Actor, fully realizing a man leading a revolution for the future of his own blossoming family just as much as he is about Black power and basic human rights. A great deal of the first act shows off his community service and attempts to unify various black factions of Chicago, functioning as a solid framework for Will and Fred bonding together, with the mole eventually becoming the head of security.
From there all bets are off, as Will has to wrestle with police brutality surrounding him, increasingly nefarious orders from Roy constantly breathing down his neck like a mobster ready to feed him to the sharks if he so much as thinks about straying the path, the weight of betraying those fighting to give him a better life, and a tangled web of other informants that quickly becomes clear to the audience while leaving the Black Panthers in the dark. If it feels like the first act is a little elongated, it’s also tough to gripe too hard considering the rest is gradually escalating all-out suspense. As tensions continue boiling to the surface, there are also some scintillating shootouts along the way. Elsewhere, a romance between Fred Hampton and young poet Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) rises, and while the dynamic can occasionally feel a bit lost inside of everything else going on, the payoff to giving these characters some alone time together is extraordinary and devastating, and will likely go down one of the hardest to watch and unforgettable scenes of the year; a devastating sequence ripped from history that depressingly feels like an everyday newspaper headline.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a complicated, electrifying, and vital watch with impactful slick direction and flooring acting from its leads. During one of Fred Hampton’s speeches, the cinematography switches to a spectator view as if we are part of the crowd far away watching and listening to Daniel Kaluuya giving a rousing battle pep talk, and despite being as white as a jar of mayonnaise, the words coming from his mouth were so powerful, inspiring, and energetic it was impossible to not want to be in that room with the Black Panthers. It’s a shot that’s lucky if it lasts more than two seconds, yet might be the defining snippet in terms of showcasing how Daniel Kaluuya is capable of walking away with more than a scene, but holding a room on every moment of his lips, cementing his scorchingly impressive embodiment of Fred Hampton.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com