Judas and the Black Messiah is a gripping drama that is brought to a feverish boil.
Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah works on many levels. It’s a film with a message that is deeply rooted in racial oppression. It works as a thoughtful biographical drama on two controversial figures. It works as a cat-and-mouse thriller, even a finely crafted crime drama. What’s most surprising, however, is the way King flips Will Berson’s script to give viewers a film that feels remarkably of the moment — I’m not sure I’ve watched another film that is so incendiary, yet reveals just how desensitized today’s audiences will be to the issues and themes at hand.
Judas and the Black Messiah talks about the FBI infiltration and Fred Hampton’s (David Kaluuya) eventual demise as the chairman of the Black Panther Party near the end of the 1960s. In true Bureau fashion, where any African-American troublemakers must be dangerous to the middle class and white way of life similar to developing a mole within the Panther organization, that Judas was a man named William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). He was arrested for impersonating an FBI agent because — as he put it — a badge is scarier than a gun.
The FBI couldn’t have imagined what would come out of turning this teenager into a counterintelligence agent. Yes, something the film conveniently doesn’t address. O’Neal, even though his career is a string of petty crimes, wasn’t a mature adult yet. Either way, he quickly moved up within the organization and became a trusted confidant who led revered figures in Chicago’s African-American communities to their downfall
What makes Judas and the Black Messiah so compelling is that it’s a type of film that many aren’t willing to admit: it’s a tragedy, and an American one at that, without a calamitous white face within the frame. Under Shaka King’s direction, along with Berson’s tightly structured script, each scene has deeply rooted themes of racial oppression and socioeconomic despair folded into every frame. Those scenes stack on top of one another, and each becomes more gripping than the next until the film reaches a feverish boiling point for the viewers.
Of course, the performances are extraordinary — the actors are up to the important task of humanizing the ones involved, whom many common people have only read about. Daniel Kaluuya keeps turning in one great performance after another. He is electric and brings to the screen the palpable charisma of a man who knew how to turn an audience just with his own words. Dominique Fishback is fiercely powerful here as an activist and Hampton’s love interest, Deborah Johnson. She gives life to a character who could have had a throwaway part but instead is turned into something completely riveting and human.
Then there is Lakeith Stanfield, who plays a richly nuanced role as O’Neal. Ever since Short Term 12, I don’t think any other actor of his generation has been able to subtly disappear into roles the way he can. From Cassius Green in Sorry to Bother You, to Darius in Atlanta, to Andre Logan King in Get Out, to Colin Warner in Crown Heights, and even his deeply moving cameo in Come Sunday — no other actor has played roles so varied that you can forget you’re watching a film star on a screen. That’s the highest compliment you can pay an actor, and it’s time the rest of the world started giving Mr. Stanfield his due.
Judas and the Black Messiah moves so cohesively it has the feel of such genre films as Donnie Brasco, with the added element of being so timely we realize how little has changed when it comes to race relations and modern government establishments. You could argue that the film may be one-sided and that it doesn’t give us a full, three-dimensional look at most of its characters (besides Stanfield’s O’Neal), but I beg to differ. No one is excusing the violence that took place, but you now understand the mindset and the mental anguish behind the actions of oppression perpetrated by these men and women.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful American tragedy. It’s so gripping that it grabs your face with both hands and forces you to watch, listen, and think about what we have long chosen to ignore and which has come to the forefront today.