Last year, 2020, was a year full of civil unrest due to the mistreatment of the Black Community by members of law enforcement. This is a problem that has perpetuated throughout the entirety of America’s history, and among the many important instances throughout that history, one of the largest periods of this unrest occurred during the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Shaka King’s latest film, Judas and the Black Messiah, takes place during this time and tells the tragic, yet inspiring story of FBI informant Bill O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) and Illinois’ Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya). With Oscar worthy performances, excellent pacing, beautiful cinematography, and a terrific score, Judas and the Black Messiah is a phenomenal film that speaks of the past while eerily reminding us of our present.
Judas and the Black Messiah follows Bill O’Neal (Stansfield) as he is arrested for stealing cars and impersonating a federal officer. He is then recruited by FBI agent Roy Mitchell, played by Jesse Plemons, to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and spy on its new leader Fred Hampton (Kaluuya). While undercover, O’Neal begins to believe in the revolutionary words and actions of Hampton and this leads him to wage a war with himself. O’Neal must decide if he will only look out for himself and help the FBI, or will he stand with his fellow brothers and fight for a better life for his community.
LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are absolute powerhouses in this film. The sheer intensity and passion and pain in every scene is palpable and you fully empathize with both of their characters despite them acting against each other. Their dialogue was always spot on and their emotions bled through the screen. They both have recently received Oscar nominations for their performances (odd that they were for Best Supporting Actor since they are both leads) and the nominations were absolutely well-deserved. All of the performances were fantastic but other notable standout performances in the film include Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, and Dominique Thorne who all portrayed their scenes with real emotional depth and complexity.
Between King’s and Will Berson’s flawless script, Sean Bobbitt’s beautiful cinematography work, and the amazing work of everyone in the sound, music, and art departments, Judas and The Black Messiah had everything going for it, and Shaka King brought it altogether to give us this incredible piece of art. I had no qualms with this film as I thought it was near flawless. I was thoroughly engaged and emotionally moved throughout every twist and turn the story took and I couldn’t ask for anything else with this type of film.
It always amazes me how these films always seem to line up with what is going on in our world today. With many examples over the past few years including Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017), Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmen (2018), Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), and now this film, we have so much phenomenal pieces of storytelling trying hard to remind us of our mistakes in society. Hopefully, we’ll start learning the lessons these masterful films are trying to tell us and strive for a better tomorrow so as not to repeat these stories. Judas and the Black Messiah is required viewing, both for this Oscar season and for better understanding our civil liberty issues today: you won’t be disappointed if you check this film out.
Judas and the Black Messiah is Rated R for violence and pervasive language.