A badge is scarier than a gun. Young Chicagoan William “Bill” O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is looking at significant prison time after being caught for grand theft auto and impersonating a federal officer. Could he be more useful on the streets than behind bars? Federal agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) certainly believes so, which is why he offers Bill a “reprieve.”
The mission? Infiltrate the rising Black Panther party headquartered in Chi-City, led by one deemed as the Black Messiah, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a charismatic, organized, and detailed orator/civil rights activist with the potential to mobilize the movement well beyond his city. In the eyes of the bureau, he is a menace to society, and Bill is to feed Roy the necessary intel to bring down the revolution.
It took some rightful time, but Judas and the Black Messiah features two actors, who in my book, have reached that rarefied air (think Jake Gyllenhaal from 2011-2017) where the projects they’re attached to become immediate watches. These two have the ability to not only stabilize, but elevate, any material they’re given. Subtract their efforts in the latest movie they appear in, and Judas and the Black Messiah would be fine, but missing crucial energy.
Tasked with bringing part of Hampton and O’Neal’s story to life is director Shaka King, who also serves as a co-writer alongside Keith Lucas, Kenneth Lucas, and Will Berson. Never does his film feel like it lacks proper detail or a sense of proper setting. Fred Hampton Jr. served as a consultant to ensure as much accuracy is achieved—or at least what can be fought for and kept in a Hollywood production. Speeches are given all the necessary gravitas, and explosive standoffs are rooted in the past while drawing obvious parallels to our times of today. King dives right into the heart of this story which highlights the urgency on both opposing sides of the feature; the side that seeks to eradicate Hampton, and the side Hampton runs who seems to instinctively know time isn’t on his side seeing two other prominent black males assassinated in his time.
The title of the movie does say a lot as it pertains to the script approach. Judas and the Black Messiah centers on the contributions to the Black Panther party by O’Neal and Hampton but seen through the eyes of O’Neal framed by his appearance in a PBS documentary. So, in a way, O’Neal is the lead character despite not really being the lead, and the awkwardness of it shows most clearly in the section of runtime that sees Hampton in prison. In that moment, Judas and the Black Messiah slows to a pace that takes time to get back on the right track. On their own, Hampton and O’Neal are extremely compelling characters. They just needed their own movies to fully realize them.
All that said, this is a quality feature on cast alone. Plemons has proven his worth for years now in playing people who have many layers regardless of genre, and smaller side characters portrayed by Ashton Sanders and Dominique Fishback add significant emotion to the mostly steely leads. However, Judas and the Black Messiah belongs to Kaluuya and Stanfield, who could not be more different as actors but are equally special. As stated before on this site, Kaluuya simply has a talent in slinking into any character as if he’s been them forever. Here, he’s stoically dynamic, his words and actions carrying electricity mixed with a dash of fatedness. Stanfield brings a unique and unorthodox element to much of his work that is often seen in the characters he plays. He’s adept in exhibiting the internal turmoil O’Neal experiences as he slowly realizes he’s in a no-win situation.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a welcome focus on a piece of America’s history that should be discussed more, even if the vision presented consists of curious choices in spaces. The cast performances make it well worth the investment.
Photo credits go to impawards.com, usatoday.com, variety.com, and wbawards.com.
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