This film will be noted as one of the best of 2021, but is going to receive nominations for the 2020 awards season. Make it make sense.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of criminal-turned-FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and his betrayal of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, and Martin Sheen also star, while Shaka King directs.
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are two of the best rising talents in Hollywood right now, with both going from obscure favorites to mainstream faces following “Get Out” in 2017. Kaluuya earned an Oscar nomination for his work there, and subsequent praise for his performance in “Widows” and appearance in “Black Panther,” while Stanfield has appeared in numerous acclaimed films like “Knives Out,” “Uncut Gems,” and “Sorry to Bother You.” Their reunion here produces a film that is entertaining and intense, but also ponderous and at times infuriating.
As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya embodies charisma and passion. An onlooker of one of his speeches calls him a poet, and it’s certainly true. He enters rallies to the sound of drums and the chanting of his name from a roaring crowd like he’s a college football star running out of the tunnel onto the field, and makes a point to gather oppressed people from all walks of life, not just African Americans. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Hampton knew he would not live to see old age (he would die at just 21) but he is ready to trade his life for the advancement of the people.
As petty thief William O’Neal, LaKeith Stanfield has a much more challenging role to balance, essentially playing a less-moral version of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Departed.” Having his arm twisted by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers in lieu of going to prison, O’Neal is portrayed as much more conflicted in the film than he was in real life but it serves the story wonderfully. While in reality O’Neal felt “no allegiance” to Hampton and the Panthers, director Shaka King and co-writers Will Berson and Kenny and Keith Lucas choose to make O’Neal becoming a rat much more of a conflict of emotion. In one scene where Stanfield must keep his Panther facade up during a rally despite realizing his cover may be about to be blown, and it is masterful acting and direction by all parties. There is the classic “who else knows about me?” confrontation between O’Neal and his FBI handler, as well as a nice touch by King to have the pair meet in progressively more fancy settings as the film goes on to symbolize how removed from his own world O’Neal is becoming, and it adds a little bit of freshness to a story beat we’ve seen before.
The supporting cast is solid as well, with Jesse Plemons playing O’Neil’s FBI handler thinking he means well, comparing the possible threat of the radical Panther party to that of the KKK. However, he and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in make-up and prosthetics that make him look like Danny DeVito’s Penguin) would rather take Hampton and the Party out than fix any actual problems that created the need for the Panthers in the first place (“you can’t cheat your way to equality” Plemons says to Stanfield).
I really enjoyed the musical score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, too. It has its tender moments of delicate piano, intense sequences with knocking of wooden blocks, and some cool drum and guitar riffs when characters and simply hanging out. The cinematography by Sean Bibbitt is also pretty good, with nice framing and detailed rain sequences.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is by-default the best film of 2021 to date (no offense to “The Marksman” or “Outside the Wire”), but I already know I will be talking about it all the way through my Top 10 list in December. Much like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” it may take place in the 1960s but the parallels to modern times could not be any clearer, and it adds to an already impressive filmography from its lead stars. This may not be an easy watch for some people, but it is a necessary one for all.
Critics Rating: 9/10