A biopic years in the making, this tale of Bill O’Neal and his hand in the fall of Black Panther chairman, Fred Hampton, knocks it out of the park and deserves your attention. [SPOILER-Free]
The following review is Spoiler-Free!
In what is the highest rated film so far of the Warner Bros-HBO Max deal, Judas and the Black Messiah has landed in the heart of what has become the most important month for the United States. Black History Month works hard to inform the majority of Americans to understand just how impactful, essential, and fundamental Black people and Black culture are to modern day society.
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a repeat criminal that is caught trying to steal a car by using a fake FBI badge. In his dealings with local law enforcement, he is given the option to either serve a seven-year sentence in jail or work as an FBI informant to investigate and take down Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the rising chairman of the Black Panther Party Illinois chapter. O’Neal chooses to aid the authorities and joins the Black Panthers, where he witnesses the work of Hampton as a community leader and revolutionary.
This is one of the strongest overall casts I can remember in recent years. Stanfield put in the performance of his career, leading the movie as “Wild Bill” O’Neal. Watching him work through the emotional layering of his journey kept me on edge as the film progressed. The star, though, is undeniably Kaluuya as the charismatic Fred Hampton, which is evident of his Golden Globe nomination and eventual Oscars nomination. Every time he came on screen, he immediately grabbed my attention and the attention of everyone in the movie. Kaluuya really nailed the perfect balance of cool, calm, and collected with a commanding presence that you can’t take your eyes off of. Whether it was delivering a speech in front of hundreds or teaching a class in front of dozens, you understood the impact of Hampton.
The rest of the cast is made up by some amazing actors that come from a wide variety of projects and fame. Dominique Fishback delivered a moving performance as Deborah Johnson, poet and Hampton’s girlfriend. The rest of the Panthers featured some great performances, including Ashton Sanders as Jimmy Palmer, Darrell Britt-Gibson as Bobby Rush, and Algee Smith as Jake Winters. The main standouts from the sign of the government were Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell, the FBI handler for Bill O’Neal, and Martin Sheen as the slimy J. Edgar Hoover.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a testament to the vision of Shaka King, Will Berson, Kenny Lucas, and Keith Lucas (also known as the Lucas Brothers). Also directed by King, the movie delivers a story that highlights the strength of community, the importance of the individual, and touches upon systemic issues that are still present today. The story uses large organizing scenes and intense standoff and action sequences that are balanced by small intimate moments and characters feeling stuck and isolated.
Being a period piece taking place in 1968-9, the film excels with on-point set design, costuming, and hair and make-up. An element that I think viewers take for granted now, it is refreshing when a film takes the time to get the small details, down to the pack of cigarettes Hampton smoked. This, accompanied by the beautifully orchestrated score, the scene is set.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an important film that is continuing and strengthening the trend of highlighting and educating spots of American history that have been downplayed due to the prominence of Black individuals and community. The movie hits on so many levels, balancing thematic elements of unity (regardless of race), self-preservation, and understanding that the greater good is stronger than the individual. The cast and crew all put in solid performances that should be appreciated and praised. It’s only a matter of time that this movie is selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Must-see. It will be difficult to find a movie that is better this year. Look for this movie to have a strong presence at the Academy Awards.
Judas and the Black Messiah can be found on HBO Max or in select theaters.