The second feature film from Shaka King is the powerful, rousing biopic Judas & the Black Messiah. Based on a screenplay co-written by King and Will Berson, Judas tells the true story of Fred Hampton (played triumphantly by Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, and how he was assassinated at the hands of someone he knew and trusted.
Taking its cues from the tale of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus Christ and 1997’s Donnie Brasco, Judasfollows Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty criminal turned FBI informant. After being caught holding up a bar (and subsequently stealing a car), Bill is forced to go undercover and befriend Fred. While Bill’s boss, Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), spews that the Black Panthers are extremist and just as dangerous as the Klu Klux Klan, O’Neal sees the other side of Bill and the Panthers – a side that belies the chaos and rhetoric Hampton passionately proclaims. More succinctly, Bill and Fred become friends and Bill’s judgment becomes clouded the longer he stays undercover.
With it being Black History Month, Judas goes beyond the obvious. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by college students Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in an effort to police the police (copwatching), since injustice and brutality towards blacks citizens were (and are) practiced by the police (at the time, specifically in Oakland, CA). The Black Panthers, though, grew to help with starvation and medical aid, witness to the Free Breakfast for Children program and community health clinics the Party founded.
Fred was the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers – his powerful words and elegant charm resulted in his founding of the Rainbow Coalition. The Rainbow Coalition united the Panthers with the Young Patriots (whites) and the Young Lords (Puerto Ricans and Latinos), which helped to end fighting amongst themselves, instead working together to promote and provide social change.
All of this, though, took a backseat to Fred and Bill’s relationship. Despite everything Fred shouted publicly, despite his positive presence to some and negative presence to others, Fred was simply a man who wanted to be accepted and loved. This desire led him to love everyone, a love so strong that he called out those who didn’t love like him (i.e., the police). The problem - Hampton opened his heart too much, and Bill took advantage of that.
That’s the brilliance of Judas & the Black Messiah – King realized that personal relationships are the foundation for grand unification. But he also knew even one relationship built on lies and deception is powerful enough to bring it all down.
That’s why the performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield are paramount. Kaluuya, whose reputation as an exceptional actor has grown since his breakout role on 2017’s Get Out, is searing as Fred Hampton. Fred was both commanding and calm; heated yet level-headed. Fred was obviously charismatic – he met and fell in love with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, 2020's Project Power) and they had a son, Fred Hampton Jr., all while he united races who’ve repeatedly clashed in the years preceding the founding of the Rainbow Coalition.
Kaluuya was able connect with Fred Hampton and he confidently displayed his understanding onscreen. Judas and the Black Messiah is a good movie with powerful messages - with Kaluuya, it’s a great one. Supporting this opinion is the fact Kaluuya was recently nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild. He’s likely a lock for an Academy Award nomination, which will be announced on March 5, 2021. Honestly, just give him the Oscar now.
Stanfield’s performance is more understated and doesn’t ask for attention. As an undercover Confidential Informant, attention is the last thing Bill O’Neal would want. That, though, plays to Stanfield’s strengths – for years, Stanfield has quietly become the consummate chameleon actor. Stanfield is adept blending into roles and churning nuanced turns – Bill is perfect for Stanfield to flex those strengths. Loyal comrade to Fred and the Panthers, or the very definition of a snitch – Bill O’Neal was incredibly good at being both and Stanfield relayed that perfectly. Stanfield is immensely amazing since Bill O’Neal was the more layered (thus, more difficult) role. He deserves as much praise as Kaluuya - his performance will appreciate down the line.
With powerhouse performances within a difficult but necessary vehicle, Judas & the Black Messiah is top-notch filmmaking with explosive results. In times where racism is at an all-time high, Shaka King’s latest reminds us that not much has changed. But despite its stark look at America’s social climate, this can be a catalyst asking us to refrain from repeating our past. It is one of the best features of both 2020 and 2021 and is a must-see tour de force.
Judas & the Black Messiah is available on HBO Max and in theaters across the country.
4.5 stars out of 5