It feels like it’s operating one gear too low in terms of pacing, but this take on the trials and tribulations of Black Panther’s Fred Hampton—and a spy within his ranks—features outstanding work by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield.
Dir. Shaka King
2021 | USA | Biography/Drama/History | 126 mins | 2.39:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for violence and pervasive language
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
Plot: Bill O’Neal infiltrates the Black Panther Party per FBI Agent Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover. As Party Chairman Fred Hampton ascends, falling for a fellow revolutionary en route, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul.
Awards: Won 2 Oscars – Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Song; Nom. for 4 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography; Official Selection (Sundance)
Distributor: Warner Bros
Subject Matter: Moderate – Revolution, Oppression, American History
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: The Projector
Judas and the Black Messiah might just be the film to finally convince me that Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are fantastic actors.
Deservingly nominated for the Oscars, albeit strangely in the supporting categories (if anything, they felt like two leads to me), which could create a split in votes that doesn’t benefit either, both give performances that reflect very well each of their character’s psyche.
Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Party Chairman, is fearless, charting a revolutionary path against the oppression of the Black community in Chicago by the police, but Kaluuya is emotionally vulnerable in some of the film’s quietest moments.
On the other hand, Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal is in perpetual paranoia—well, it’s the ‘occupational hazard’ of being forced to infiltrate the Party as a spy for the FBI in order to be pardoned for a crime he committed—but he must fight fear with strength and a dash of insanity.
“Anywhere there is people, there is power.”
As a film about that volatile part of American history in the late 1960s, Judas and the Black Messiah is illuminating though not always riveting.
In terms of pacing, the picture feels like it’s operating one gear too low, never raising any sense of urgency despite some great scenes of tension.
One reason could be that there are just too many scenes between Stanfield and Jesse Plemons (who plays the FBI agent involved in Bill’s case) peppered throughout the film that dissipate any build-up of suspense accumulated in the Black Panther milieu.
But as far as 2021’s Best Picture Oscar nominees are concerned, Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the stronger films on the shortlist.