“Judas and the Black Messiah” begins in Chicago, 1968, where we meet a car thief whose ruse is to impersonate a police officer, accuse a random victim of car theft, confiscate their keys, then take off with the vehicle.
Once Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught and arrested, a federal agent named Roy (Jesse Plemons) recognizes O’Neal’s ability at deception and cuts him a deal.
Either be an informant for the FBI and spy on the Black Panther Party or spend years rotting in prison. Roy repeatedly assures O’Neal that the BPP is “no different” from the KKK and that his work is aiding America.
O’Neil becomes helpful to the BPP, initially gaining credibility for having a car to provide transportation and eventually becomes the organization’s Security Captain. He also develops a friendship with Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the Chairman of the Illinois BPP.
As O’Neal is immersed in the progress and struggles of the party, his loyalty to either side becomes a big question; who is he truly serving and who is he really betraying?
Ryan Coogler of “Black Panther” and “Creed” fame is among the film’s producers. The real find is co-screenwriter and director Shaka King, who has made a killer film about a jaw-dropping piece of history.
Leads Kaluuya and Stanfield are well known for their performances in “Get Out,” but this film could change that. Playing Hampton, Kaluuya is on fire from his very first scene. Nothing he’s done before (not even his stunning turn as an antagonist in “Widows”) can prepare audiences for his work here.
Stanfield’s performance is more internal but no less essential. O’Neal is a tortured soul and Stanfield lets us see the agony and hubris of a man who sells out in order to survive.
Dominique Fishback is wonderful as Deborah Johnson, a BPP recruit who becomes romantically involved with Hampton. This plotline grows stronger as the film progresses, and we don’t learn until the film is over just how important Johnson is to this story.
The scene of her and Hampton bonding over their ability to recite speeches from memory is especially well written and performed. A nearly unrecognizable Lil’ Rel, another “Get Out” alumni, has a flashy one-scene cameo in the third act.
Martin Sheen plays J. Edgar Hoover, and his initial appearance is jarring. Covered in make-up, he oddly resembles Kevin Spacey’s deleted appearance in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World.” More than just a celebrity cameo appearance, Sheen makes his scenes count and gives an unsettling turn.
Playing a key figure, as the FBI middleman who instructs and controls O’Neal, Plemons continues his master class at never overdoing any of his scenes and finding subtle shading in his characterization.
There hasn’t been a definitive look at the Black Panther Party on film before. Mario Van Peebles’ “Panther” (1995) was a notable good try but heavily criticized for its fictitious screenplay. Otherwise, the BPP has either been the subject of riveting documentaries or been a side note in good films (like the recent “The Trial of the Chicago 7”).
“Judas and the Black Messiah” likely won’t be a definitive take of the subject (how could it be, with founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale only mentioned and briefly glimpsed in news footage?). Yet, what King has pulled off is impressive for how tricky it is.
The BPP is portrayed in a complex, layered manner that matches the way it spotlights the actions of O’Neal. This is neither an outright celebration of the BPP, nor a thorough criticism but a portrait that shows both the great strides and community outreach as clearly as the egos and the disunity that occurs.
FAST FACT: Director Shaka King says one element that attracted him to shoot “Judas” was to “put forth some really radical ideas in a very palatable vessel.”
Some times the story could have been told more clearly. For example, how long was Hampton in prison? Otherwise, the crisp editing by Kristan Sprague helpfully keeps the subplots and side characters straight. Also, there’s a brief nightmare sequence that is a rare misstep. Overall, the filmmaking is un-showy and storytelling is alive and immediate.
Aided by a great, exciting score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, as well as “Fight For you,” the rousing end credits song by H.E.R., this is an especially well paced film, as the 126-minute running time flies by.
If the climax is disturbing, then the final title card epilogue and news footage is downright jaw dropping. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is an engrossing and hypnotic film that leaves you with big questions and encourages rich conversations on the nature of true identity.
It’s a powerful film and a must see.