Judas and the Black Messiah certainly has an appropriate title as the two main characters are a traitor and a messianic leader. Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations were awarded to both actors even though it makes no sense to label them “supporting” since the story is focused on both, does that mean the Academy thought nobody was the lead? Anyway, gripes about nomination weirdness aside, this is a decent undercover thriller that has pertinent points about racial inequity and police brutality that is still valid today. The downside is Judas meanders with a few side plots and lots of speeches that aren’t as dramatically compelling as the story of one man selling out his newfound friends for a few dollars more.
In the late 1960s, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is a grifter caught impersonating an FBI agent which lands him square in the sights of a real FBI agent, Roy (Jesse Plemons). The G-man cuts O’Neal a deal, if he can infiltrate the Black Panther party of Chicago, he can be an informant for the FBI. They are especially interested in the charismatic chairman Black Panther member, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who is gaining support for radical ideas like free lunches for kids. FBI Director Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) sees Hampton as a threat and doesn’t want a new leader for the black community to arise. Hampton is currently expecting a child with his girlfriend, Deborah (Dominique Fishback), but O’Neal feeding information to the Feds may bring Hampton’s entire crusade crashing down.
Even though this a period piece, still sadly resonant are cops busting down doors without warning and unloading gunfire. The Feds, led by Hoover, think that the Black Panther party could destroy America as several of Hoover’s fired up speeches proclaim. Sheen’s Hoover is a raging jerk that may be borderline caricature but is memorable. There’s a very effective, very strong action scene when the cops unload on the Black Panther headquarters that has the camera swooping along in a single take as the chaos unfolds.
The tone is akin to an undercover crime drama like The Departed where the undercover agent is paranoid he’s going to be found. Stanfield as O’Neal is a compelling character as he’s constantly trying to throw people off that he’s the informant. He portrays someone convincingly lying through their teeth as little side glances show that he’s barely keeping the lie together but he can talk his way out of anything. The guilt of betraying people is eating him up and at one point having a nightmare about being attacked by a different version of himself. The scam he runs pretending to be a Fed so he can boost cars is effective because he knows that people won’t question an FBI officer. In one scene, a seemingly friendly bar patron played by Lil Rel Howery reveals he knows O’Neal is an informant and implies that O’Neal should do something horrible to betray Hampton. It’s a great bit that slowly goes from jovial to menacing.
As O’Neal’s handler, Plemons’ Roy is slowly degrading O’Neal’s already sketchy morals. Roy sounds like he’s making a legit point that the Black Panthers should be considered a terrorist organization but the methods that the FBI are using are straight up wrong, like how they let a deadly informant run free so they can throw charges at the Black Panther members for harboring a murderer. Roy is a sort of banal version of evil and, most damming of all, blind compliance that Roy embodies. Even while he seemingly disagrees with the FBI method he goes along anyway. He pushes O’Neal to delve deeper into sowing discord by dangling the prospect of riches and freedom, showing the lifestyle O’Neal could have. Roy is trying to do his job without thinking too much about the ethical implications of his actions.
Kaluuya as Hampton is portrayed as a nearly divine person of inspiration. While the movie does acknowledge the Black Panthers sometimes engaged in violence, like a very dark moment where one member brutally kills a cop in a chase scene, Hampton was primarily trying to build a stronger community and free school lunches. He even reached out to other groups so they can come together and condemn police violence. When Hampton goes to jail for a stay due to Hoover ranting about how he has to go it’s on a phony charge of stealing about 70 dollars worth of ice cream. There are a lot of scenes of Hampton making speeches which may get a bit repetitive but Kaluuya sell his passion. The subplot about Hampton falling in love is somewhat heartwarming but also kind of filler as Deborah is mostly generic love interest. However, that pays off in a final scene where the police raid Hampton’s home that follows the emotional devastation that Deborah is feeling in the final moments.
Judas and the Black Messiah certainly has scenes that are impactful. While biopics may sometimes be guilty of trying to portray their central figures as saints at least here they admit it in the title. The real dramatic power is O’Neal talking out of both sides of his mouth while leading his friends down the path to inevitable, bloody ruin.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Director: Shaka King
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons