With the recent Golden Globe and SAG nominations being officially revealed, it’s fair to say that we are truly in the swing of awards season 2021. Whilst Shaka King’s Judas And The Black Messiah might not have garnered the sweeping amount of nominations that some had expected so far, its release still felt very much like a noteworthy event in the cinematic calendar. After months of hype, I was glad to finally be watching a movie that promised to be a memorable biopic with plenty of relevance at this stage in the 21st century.
Set in 1960’s Chicago amidst the growing prominence of the Black Panther movement, Judas And The Black Messiah tells the story of Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a young career criminal who, in order to avoid jail time, agrees to become an undercover informant on behalf of FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). The aim of his mission? To infiltrate the inner circle of Illinois chapter Black Panther party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and disrupt his fast growing influence and success.
Originally pitched as “The Conformist meets The Departed“, there is an overall plot structure in Judas And The Black Messiah that will feel familiar to fans of the informant genre, but vitally everything within this narrative is brought to such vivid and tension filled life that instead of feeling ‘done before’, it feels crucial and brand new. As someone who grew up in the UK school system, there was very little, if any, mention of the Black Panthers in my education, and having zero knowledge of the events brought to life in this film make the impact of the unfolding events even more hard hitting and stirring.
There is so much going here thematically that it is truly impressive how accessible Judas And The Black Messiah is. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a popcorn movie, but there is a distinct smoothness in the story telling that can only be put down to excellent writing and excellent direction. I’m not sure that some audiences truly understand what it takes to make a movie that incorporates themes like social and racial injustice, personal turmoil, political and social revolution, political and police corruption and assassination to name a few, and STILL produce something that doesn’t feel like an impossibly heavy viewing experience. The film is a serious watch, at times it reaches Shakespearean levels of drama and tragedy, but it somehow also manages to find moments of light in the darkness, and that is so, so beneficial to the final product. It’s a tale of betrayal and ultimately the consequences of what such history altering actions can have on all involved, and I was gripped from start to finish.
Though the film begins and ends with LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, the undisputed superstar of Judas And The Black Messiah is Daniel Kaluuya. As Fred Hampton, Kaluuya is almost scarily magnetic and charismatic, making it an effortless task for the audience to buy into the character and believe that he could command so much influence and inspire so much enthusiasm from his supporters and downright fear from his enemies. This is a man, a real life man, who threatened so much social revolution that the FBI saw it fit to assassinate him at 21 years of age. Hampton was clearly a figure older than his years, and Kaluuya embodies that quality perfectly. I’ll be astounded if he doesn’t receive a Best Actor Oscar nod for this role, I think it just might be his best to date in an already stellar filmography.
Going back to LaKeith Stanfield, he proves to be a worthy screen partner for Kaluuya, albeit with the thankless task of portraying the film’s titular Judas. An audience surrogate in the sense that he is the only character who knows about the betrayal as we do, it’s surprising just how sympathetic Stanfield is able to make Bill O’Neal. Hampton’s assassination is a gut punch in the final third, but the lines of text revealing O’Neal’s fate are equally as arresting. Had it not been for Stanfield’s layered performance, such sympathy might not have been warranted.
Overall, I think you can tell that I was really moved by Judas And The Black Messiah. I love films that give me an insight into a historical era or event that I previously hadn’t known about, and this certainly ticks that box. Expertly made, top notch work both from those in front of the camera and behind it. Given the context of the last couple of years in the United States and beyond, a picture like this feels even more necessary than ever. Is that a tragically depressing thing to consider? Yes. I am, however, glad that these stories are being told.