Judas and the Black Messiah has proven to be a strong competitor this awards season. Following the true story about an FBI informant, William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) who infiltrates the Black Panthers and gets close to Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the film tells a point of view that is often missing from the narrative. Directed by Shaka King and based on a script written by King and Will Berson, Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t try to spoonfeed the audience and immediately throws us into the situation. As we see William delve deeper into the Black Panthers, we begin to see the conflict in his position as a black man who is working for the predominantly white government that the Panthers are protesting against.
The directorial decisions when it comes to the structure and editing of the film has proven to be a hit or miss when it comes to the critics and audience. I appreciated King’s decision to throw us into the situation and remain neutral on William’s political stance. As reflected in the interview footage we see at the end of the film, William leaves it for the individual to decide whether he was in the right or wrong in his actions as he has been forced into his situation.
Lakeith Stanfield is perfectly cast as William O’Neal and does a great job at conveying the inner conflict that O’Neal faces as he is torn between his job as an FBI informant and as a rising presence in the Black Panthers. Stanfield excels during the scenes in which O’Neal’s life is at stake when there is violent conflict between the police and the Panthers as we see how he doesn’t know what is the right or wrong point of view. As his friendship with Fred grows, his inner conflict grows more and there is more at stake. The chemistry Stanfield has with Jesse Plemons who plays the FBI agent is fantastic and the scenes of negotiation between the two are greatly intense as O’Neal is forced to carry out his time with the Panthers whilst reiterating confidential information to the FBI. One of the biggest surprises at this year’s Oscars is Stanfield’s nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category alongside Kaluuya. It’s great to see Stanfield getting the recognition he deserves but he is definitely the film’s lead and should have been considered as such.
With most of the acting awards being up for debate this year, one consistency has been Daniel Kaluuya’s clean sweep of the Best Supporting Actor gongs from the major awarding bodies. Having received his film breakout in the excellent Get Out which saw him receive his first Academy Award nomination. His performance as Fred Hampton only shows signs of growth and is absolutely breathtaking. If it wasn’t clear before that Kaluuya is one of the best actors working today then it definitely is now. The scenes in which Fred is addressing his congregation commands the room and is so gripping to watch as we cannot predict what decision he’ll make next. There is always that looming danger around Fred as informants are compromised and police action becomes more violent. Some people have a problem with Kaluuya playing Hampton because he is British but his accent is pitch perfect and his mannerisms reflect Fred brilliantly so much so that he becomes the character.
One thing about the film that really stood out to me was the score which was composed by Mark Isham and Craig Harris. The sharp jazz tones make the film feel like a thriller in places and takes away from the reality of the situation. Heavily inspired by the upbeat music of the 1970s also, the score is captivating and helps to elevate the viewing experience.
Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah is filled with fantastic performances from all of its cast. The decision to keep O’Neal’s stance neutral throughout may not work for everyone but I appreciate King for trying something different by allowing O’Neal to act as an observer to Hampton and the FBI and seeing how the two sides make their plans. Kaluuya in particular is worth the watch alone as he does Fred Hampton justice thanks to his passionate and fearless performance.
What did you think of Judas and the Black Messiah? Let me know in the comments below!