Late last year, I wrote about how Netflix’s “Trial of the Chicago Seven” was poised for this moment — a testament to standing up for your rights as an American citizen and bringing viewers back to a period that echoed many of the demands for civil rights we still seek today.
All respect to Aaron Sorkin, but Shaka King’s “Judas and The Black Messiah” is a far more genuine, bleak – and superior depiction - of what it means to be a revolutionary in this country.
Arriving on HBO Max last Friday after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, “Judas” begins rather candidly. A young crook named William O’Neal, played by the always eccentric Lakeith Stanfield (“Atlanta”) is arrested by law enforcement in Chicago during the late 1960s after attempting to hijack a vehicle, while simultaneously posing as an FBI agent during the robbery. Facing years behind bars for the car and impersonating a federal officer, he’s given a simple choice by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – go undercover to infiltrate and take down the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party or be shipped off to federal prison.
Out of luck and willing to do whatever it takes to avoid jail; O’Neal ultimately decides to become a paid informant for the bureau – planting and disguising himself among the ecosphere of the Party and soon gaining the trust of its young leader Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), whose radical ideas about revolutionizing the political and socioeconomic structures of both corrupt Chicago and the nation won’t go unrecognized among enthused, political viewers.
Proceeding to trace the lines between O’Neal’s ascension among Party ranks, Mitchell’s growing pressure from the FBI to take these radical voices down, and Hampton’s own personal tales, all sides converge at a climactic breaking point before the infamous apartment raid that took Hampton’s life on December 4, 1969 – an event rarely discussed in history books. It’s also never been put to the big screen previously and “Judas” forcefully illustrates the depths to which those in political power will go to silence anyone who challenges their traditional way of thinking.
While “Judas” may be categorized as a run-of-the-mill biopic at first glance, executive producer Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and King somehow manage to meld the best parts about a conspiracy thriller, Shakespearean tragedy and romantic drama instead – switching tones with an effortlessness and sophistication that mesmerized me from the moment Hampton first opens his mouth to speak. At some moments amplifying the fundamental tension between O’Neal’s conflicting roles and shaking the lens to show the nerves he feels when he fears he will be discovered as a snitch and tortured alive by Party, the growing paranoia King’s choices create remind me of cat and mouse games of Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet from the 70s – an inversion I loved to watch unfold, especially given how predictable the genre can become.
Other moments, more genuine and keeping to the conventional form, step away from Hampton’s roaring pontifications to both Party members and fellow Chicago street gangs to focus on the blossoming relationship between himself and Deborah Johnson, who becomes pregnant with Hampton’s child (Dominique Fishback) – a tender story of star-crossed and ill-fated lovers that becomes all the more devastating when you know where the story is headed. Happening between Hampton’s and O’Neal’s conflicting missions; King lands nearly every emotional and visceral punch he throws and will keeps viewers hooked until the story’s tragic finale fatefully arrives.
Despite the transfigurations both he and screenwriters Keith and Kenny Lucas (“22 Jump Street”) provide to make “Judas” an electrifying spectacle from start to finish, none of it would work without a triumvirate of impressive turns from Kaluuya, Plemons and Stanfield in suit.
Beginning with the eponymous messiah, Kaluuya as Fred Hampton is stunning to watch – providing a fiery passion and intensity to his beliefs that makes you forget the man was only in his early twenties when he formed and led an entire coalition of groups in the quest towards social justice. His musings about the oppression of working-class peoples and cries to stand in defiance towards the inequality of the forces at play are captured multiple times through breathtaking speeches among groups both large and small, capped by a powerful piece of oratory he delivers in a local church following his stint in jail that will make you want to stand up and cheer along as he leads his worshiping followers in the repeated shouts of: “I am a revolutionary.”
Scholars of the real man’s political views may be quick to accuse the film of watering down his socialist beliefs; but nonetheless, Kaluuya’s transformation into the role makes him most certainly worthy of Oscar recognition following his 2017 snub for Best Actor.
On the other side, Plemons continues to provide excellent supporting work in his role as Agent Mitchell – someone who goes from champion of law and order when he first makes a bargain with O’Neal in the opening interrogation, to a man whose seemingly only wants to carry out orders for the sake of his country and genuinely evil FBI boss J.Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen).
While the latter’s brief appearances are genuinely repulsive and will make your skin crawl with disgust, its Mitchell whose final stance on the undercover operation will drive home the real tragedy of the film – complicity following the orders of his superiors and breaking with his own moral beliefs as the department’s calls for Hampton’s murder grow louder and louder. His heel turn by the end is tough to watch; and while never an emotional performer, Plemons adds more evidence to his growing reputation as one of the best young actors working today.
Finally, and likely the most difficult to manage, Stanfield’s performance as Bill O’Neal is a testament to how supremely talented the man is – something that isn’t surprising if you’ve peeled back the layers on his nuanced characters in films “Sorry to Bother You” or delved into his work on FX’s award-winning “Atlanta.” Somehow and someway, he manages to create a quality of sympathy for a figure whose actions directly led to the murder of innocent people, unfailingly showcasing the inherent claustrophobia in his lose-lose situation through both his affectations and consistently nerve-wracking exchanges with both police and suspicious Party members. The chronicle that emerges doesn’t do the character any favors (nor should it – for that matter), but the difficulty of what Stanfield is forced to undertake and largely succeeds in doing is worthy of praise and deservedly should propel him towards awards recognition.
With a unique delivery of a little-known biographical tale and enough heavy-hitting performances to knock your socks off, “Judas and The Black Messiah” is the best thing I’ve seen to this point in 2021 and will surely get recognized once the Oscar nominations arrive. I frequently say this – but it’s a movie that needs to be experienced to truly comprehend the gravitas behind the material, and thankfully was dropped right in a cultural moment that should allow the larger political philosophies and moral dilemmas to become conversation starters.
Hollywood rarely produces stories like these anymore, but hopefully King and company’s work will be a reminder of what’s possible when new and provoking voices have a seat at the table.
You can find “Judas and The Black Messiah” streaming on HBO Max right now