Director Shaka King’s bio-pic Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Black Panther Party icon Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), but told from the point of view of the FBI informant sent to take him down.
LaKeith Stanfield stars as the film’s titular Judas, William O’Neal. At the start of the movie, he’s a low-level criminal who steals cars by posing as an FBI agent. But his grifting skills aren’t as sharp as he thinks they are, and the cops bust O’Neal and charge him with impersonating a federal agent.
Enter Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), a ruthless and calculating FBI agent looking for a new snitch. Mitchell offers to clear O’Neal’s charges if he infiltrates the Black Panther Party’s Chicago chapter to get close to its charismatic leader, Fred Hampton.
Facing a prison sentence, O’Neal takes the deal and starts cozying up to Hampton as his personal driver. But before long, O’Neal starts believing in the Party’s values as he begins to question the real threat. The Feds, it turns out, aren’t out to defend law and order; instead, they want to neutralize any black activist who threatens the white status quo.
One aspect of this movie that left me gobsmacked is that Hampton only lived to 21. Sure, Kaluuya is a decade older than the man he’s playing, which imbues the performance with an added layer of gravitas. But it’s more than that. For black kids growing up, the mystique of people like Fred Hampton always loomed large. I know he was barely old enough to vote, but in my mind, he remains a sage, accomplished figure.
Kaluuya once again proves that he’s one of the most intriguing young actors in the game right now. There’s nothing this man can’t do. Whether it’s playing a menacing psycho in Widows or a romantic cornball in Queen & Slim, he always radiates a magnetic presence.
Bio-pics don’t have a strong track record for humanizing their iconic subjects. It’s easy for legendary figures to fall into broad caricatures. Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton comes across as a flesh and blood human being. He’s warm, thoughtful, and even shy behind closed doors. But when Hampton steps on stage, his commanding presence electrifies the room. Kaluuya is a sight to behold whenever he dials up Hampton’s legendary charisma.
Throwing Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, and Jesse Plemons into the mix gives director Shaka King an embarrassment of riches to manage. Fishback hasn’t had a breakout role yet, but she’s a major talent who leaves an impression, no matter how big her role. She’s been on my radar since her standout turn in Jordana Spiro’s Night Comes On. Her chemistry with Kaluuya is essential to bringing out the emotional nuances from a public figure as complex as Hampton.
Don’t be shocked if Stanfield became this generation’s Brando. He’s dashing, talented AF, and fearless about which roles he tackles. I wouldn’t be surprised if a director casts him as the next James Bond or a sex-worker in some micro-budget indie flick.
Stanfield only knows how to deliver compelling performances. But what he’s doing in Judas and the Black Messiah is on some whole other level. Every aspect of his layered performance as O’Neal feels deeply considered. This character is always putting up a façade. We watch him do it as a thief hustling other crooks, as a Black Panther secretly working for the feds, and as a criminal informant leveraging the relationship with his handler.
O’Neal plays so many roles that even he loses track of what he believes in. It’s a testament to Stanfield’s performance that the film doesn’t rely on voiceover or on-the-nose music queues (à la Goodfellas) to help us understand what O’Neal is going through. You can read it on Standfield, as clear as day. It’s in his bluster, in his hollow swagger, and his ruminating gaze.
O’Neal’s relationship with Mitchell literalizes the problematic nature of an anti-black capitalist system. O’Neal is only allowed to take part in the American dream by contributing to the subjugation of disenfranchised people – his own people. Their relationship represents the long-standing mechanisms put in place to keep African Americans from elevating their social standing. It’s not hard to find parallels to today.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a mighty cinematic achievement that excels on multiple levels. King’s timely bio-pic works as a gritty character study with elements of Donnie Brasco and Infernal Affairs. It features detailed costumes, absorbing production design, and phenomenal performances across the board. Most impressively, Judas and the Black Messiah presents a tapestry of complex themes that interrogate (and chastise) America’s insidious brand of white supremacy.
Sundance 2021 runs from January 28th until February 3rd. Click here for more Sundance coverage.