Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
Director: Shaka King
Running Time: 126 mins
Judas And The Black Messiah is an American film about the betrayal of Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panthers by William O’Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrated the organisation to its highest level.
A riveting look at a turbulent era in America’s history with clear parallels to the modern day, Judas And The Black Messiah impressively doubles as an engrossing, exciting self-contained drama and a wider social drama, complete with gripping historical depth and some spectacular performances.
There’s certainly a lot more to be said on the Black Panthers than the often superficial good vs. bad message that this film presents, although Judas And The Black Messiah is arguably less about who the Black Panthers were, and more about the society in which they were born.
That’s where this film’s slightly more contained and personal focus really comes in handy, as it doesn’t present itself as another grandiose civil rights biopic, but rather a more focused drama that uses a specific incident – in this case the infamous betrayal of Fred Hampton – as an allegory for the wider issues of civil rights both in the 1960s and in the present day.
So, for the most part, Judas And The Black Messiah does a really good job at bringing personal emotion to the table to make its story stand out. In particular, LaKeith Stanfield gives a brilliantly layered performance that makes William O’Neal out to be far more than just a good guy or a bad guy, but a man perhaps reluctantly forced into his circumstances by the world around him.
Once again, that plays into the way that this film uses its individual story as an allegory for the wider context, and Stanfield’s impressively charismatic yet intimate performance goes a long way to making you sympathise with O’Neal in a way that other less nuanced films may not have done.
Alongside Stanfield is Daniel Kaluuya, who is spectacular as Fred Hampton. Both with an incredible accent and a striking on-screen demeanour, Kaluuya certainly fits the bill of portraying a historical figure effectively dubbed ‘the black Messiah’, with immense assurance that sees him absolutely own every scene he’s in.
Kaluuya’s performance doesn’t necessarily strike up the same emotional drama as Stanfield’s, in part because the film uses Fred Hampton as more of a political vehicle in comparison to O’Neal as the story’s main emotional focus, but the two prove a gripping duo that make Judas And The Black Messiah an enthralling watch.
And the fact that their story is so captivating draws you in further and further to the world of the Black Panthers and the turbulent era of the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of Martin Luther King. There’s real passion behind the political themes here, and director Shaka King certainly pulls no punches in comparing society in the late ’60s with 2021.
It’s perhaps not as on-the-nose as what you might see in a Spike Lee movie, but it works wonders in bringing home the importance of the story at hand. Admittedly, the portrayal of the Black Panthers is a little less nuanced than the reality of history, but as I mentioned earlier, this is less about the Black Panthers as a whole, and more about a smaller microcosm of a wider societal issue.
Overall, I was really impressed by Judas And The Black Messiah. A captivating watch throughout, the film blends gripping history with brilliantly intimate emotional drama which, thanks to two spectacular central performances, allows this story to really work well as an allegory for race relations and the wider Civil Rights Movement. So, that’s why I’m giving it a 7.6.