Sundance Review: Judas and the Black Messiah
Like many historical dramas, Judas and the Black Messiah opens with documentary footage to contextualize the time period, placing the viewer squarely in the summer of 1968 amidst the rise of the Black Panther Party. But this is no conventional civil rights biopic. Assisted by excellent cinematography from frequent Steve McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, writer-director Shaka King has constructed a tense cat-and-mouse thriller reminiscent of The Departed, running along two parallel tracks. As the Panthers work to build a multiracial coalition of street gangs to pursue their vision of social justice, FBI agents and investigators zero in on the Panthers’ national vice chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, incredible), while Hampton and the Panthers simultaneously work to identify a traitor in their midst—FBI informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield, fantastic).
For a movie that largely concerns subterfuge, Judas is fairly straightforward. Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) warns against the rise of a new “Black Messiah” capable of organizing and leading a movement of Black Americans against the racial injustice as one of the greatest threats to his conception of the American way of life. After stealing a car, Chicago resident O’Neal is picked up by the FBI and cultivated as a confidential informant—the titular “Judas”—against one of the Bureau’s prime subjects: Fred Hampton, who takes center stage after appearing on the periphery of last year’s Trial of the Chicago 7. As the FBI slowly closes the circle around Hampton, he and the Panthers do the same to O’Neal, inevitably culminating in violence and tragedy.
As Hampton, Kaluuya further cements his reputation as one of the most exciting actors working today. He plays Hampton as a coiled mass of energy, crackling with rage and bursting with wry charm. But critically, he doesn’t give Hampton the iconographic treatment common to biopic subjects in the past. Both King’s screenplay (co-written with Will Berson, from a story by Kenny and Keith Lucas) and Kaluuya’s performance make room for Hampton’s humanity alongside his activism. Yes, he’s a captivating orator and a bold strategist, but he is also a man—a young man—with personal relationships, doubts, and desires, personified by Hampton’s girlfriend and fellow Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), the quiet anchor of the film’s heavier emotional beats.
Kaluuya is a preternaturally gifted performer, able to convey a universe of emotion with one twitch of an eyelid. But he finds an equally compelling screen partner in Stanfield, who gives what might be the finest performance of an already impressive career. As Hampton, Kaluuya is so electric it’s no wonder that someone like O’Neal—even while being coerced by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers—would fall under his spell. Of course, he feels the pressure from his FBI handler (Jesse Plemons) to support the Bureau’s campaign against the Panthers, but he also sees the racial injustices that Hampton and the Panthers are actively working to dismantle. And Stanfield expresses that internal conflict masterfully, making clear that at times, not even O’Neal is sure where his loyalties lie.
With this film, King has assembled what should be the definitive mainstream cinematic depiction of this under-discussed chapter of American history. Without being didactic, he draws clear parallels between the tensions and unrest of 1968 and our present day conflicts, depicting them less as similar moments in time and instead placing them as two points on the same continuum of racial violence. It’s a powerful statement from a fresh and essential cinematic voice.
Judas and the Black Messiah opens in theaters (where available) and on HBO Max on February 12.