Judas and the Black Messiah centers on William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) who is offered a deal from the FBI to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Blank Panthers, which is led by Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
The film itself is well-paced and well-directed by Shaka King. But the strongest part of the film is the performances. You can gather from the title that Judas and the Black Messiah is a heavy film to watch, as there will be betrayal and death.
Lakeith Stanfield stars as William O’Neal and plays him as antsy and nervous, but he does well masking that when he’s with the Panthers. The FBI is threatening him with jail time if he does not provide them sufficient information on the Panthers and on Hampton. Despite being the led, we are a bit detached from Stanfield. The film does not really explore his motivations well or give us any insight into what he is feeling. Stanfield does well with what he is given, but I wanted to learn more about O’Neal than what was on the surface.
Daniel Kaluuya is a definite shoe-in for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year and has a good chance of winning it. His rousing speeches are electrifying and you cannot take your eyes off him. When Hampton speaks he is impassioned and inspiring to others. He takes responsibility for his words and actions, and exemplifies what a true leader should be. I loved the scenes that involved Hampton and his love interest, Deborah Johnson (played by Dominique Fishback). I actually wish we got to see more of her and her involvement with the Panthers. She has a powerful final scene that resonates with the viewer.
The FBI saw the Black Panthers as threats and even likened them to the KKK, which is outrageous. Jesse Plemons plays the agent who blackmails O’Neal into infiltrating the Panthers and informing on their plans. Plemons is cold and intimidating, not an unusual performance from him because he does it so well. J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen) brought the Panther’s leaders to the FBI’s attention. Overall, the FBI side of things just was not as interesting or high stakes as it wanted to be.
I would say that despite this being a Get Out reunion for Stanfield and Kaluuya, their relationship in the film is not well developed enough to make the betrayal feel gut-punching. You are dreading the betrayal because you know it’s going to happen and because Kaluuya may have delivered his best performance yet as Hampton. Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah is a gripping story with great performances, but if the film delved more into the character of William O’Neal, it would have made the story feel more intimate and emotionally investing.
I give Judas and the Black Messiah a B.