All you have to do is turn on the news or venture onto social media for a matter of seconds to recognize the turbulent and tumultuous time in which we find ourselves. But these political, social and economic divides are far from uncharted territory for an entire generation of Americans, those who lived through the daily vitriol and violence displayed throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Shaka King’s captivating new drama, Judas and the Black Messiah, transports the audience to the boiling point of these tensions where political activist and Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, became a central target of the U.S. government.
Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is a scrappy young man who runs a clever game of impersonating a police officer in order to steal cars on the mean streets of Chicago in 1968. But once he’s finally caught by the authorities, FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) gives O’Neal an ultimatum: Spend more than five years in federal prison, or go undercover and infiltrate the local Black Panther Party. Without hesitation, O’Neal becomes an FBI informant and immediately maneuvers his way up the Black Panther ranks by developing a close relationship with their charismatic leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). This leads to a deep and complex inner struggle as O’Neal is forced to balance his own fears of being outed, his shame in being disloyal to Fred, and constant pressure coming from an aspiring Agent Mitchell.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a hypnotic blend of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco. The film is at its best when it focuses on the torn psyche of informant Bill O’Neal. What begins as a decision to save his own skin, quickly transforms into torment and regret as he grows fond of Hampton and his political message. And while some may be quick to mislabel Shaka King’s work as a divisive story about racial history in this country, the truth is Judas and the Black Messiah is a tale of oppression, no matter the color or creed. According to Hampton, the only way to stop oppression is to unite to fight against the tyrannical forces that perpetuate it, such as law enforcement and the U.S. government. This alluring message to the poor and disenfranchised masses made Hampton the leader of a revolution, and one that the government felt a desperate need to silence. These circumstances culminate in an explosive and unnerving finale that’s jam-packed with feelings of anger, sadness and remorse that beautifully encapsulate this timely work.
Many have lauded Daniel Kaluuya’s performance and donned it Oscar-worthy, mainly for his fantastic characterization of Hampton. He nails everything from the political activist’s energetic speaking-style to his posture and mannerisms with detailed precision. However, the more interesting and complex characters are clearly O’Neal and Agent Mitchell, both of whom experience the film’s main arcs as the minutes mount. It’s here where themes of ambition and regret are illustrated masterfully. Watching LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons wallow in these roles is truly a sight to behold. Meanwhile, up-and-coming writer/director Shaka King does a wonderful job of letting his talented cast and gripping story carry the weight of the film. The director picks his moments to impress behind the camera but never over-reaches. This is the true sign of a developed filmmaker, one who isn’t afraid to check his ego at the door. Judas and the Black Messiah is guaranteed to polarize audiences, evident by the fact that we’re still fighting many of the same battles more than 50 years later. But make no mistake about it, Shaka King’s historical drama is a powerhouse entry that’s destined to catch the attention of Oscar voters and deservedly so.