Judas and the Black Messiah is a Thrilling Retelling That Fearlessly Exposes Government Ills

Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is available to stream on HBO Max and in select theaters. Photo by Glen Wilson/ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Mathew Messa/Staff Writer

Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are at their finest in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, offering riveting suspense and timely, powerful social commentary that will shake viewers to their core. 

Based on true events, the film follows William O’Neal (Stanfield), a thief-turned-FBI informant, as he infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s to gather information on its chairman, Fred Hampton (Kaluuya)

Caught impersonating an FBI agent, William O’Neal is offered a position as an informant as an ultimatum to his potential prison sentence by agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons).

 His task is to gather as much intelligence on Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton as possible. He joins the ranks of the group, becoming the chairman’s chauffeur and, in an ironic turn, the Chicago chapter’s Chief of Security.

 Every salute, every meeting, is met with suspense, as the Party is constantly looking over its shoulder for “rats,” and the film becomes increasingly cynical as the FBI’s true plans for the Party unravel. 

Stanfield, 29, plays a then-17-year-old O’Neal, which makes him tough to sell as an adolescent, and while there is an argument to be made that this lessens the film’s message, Stanfield delivers a jaw-dropping performance. 

The film has a poignant message behind it about the role the government can play in the shadows of a growing movement it does not favor, and Stanfield’s face offers viewers a vehicle for that message. 

With every covert meeting O’Neal holds with agent Mitchell, Stanfield peels off layers of disillusionment. 

Stanfield stars opposite fellow Get Out cast member Daniel Kaluuya, whose portrayal of Chairman Hampton is equally as haunting in the message that it sends. 

Kaluuya, 31, is also considerably older than the real Hampton was at the time, however, he brings a level of vulnerability to the 21-year-old that is refreshing, because it stands in stark contrast to the militant portrayals of the Party the media of this time period provided.

 Kaluuya’s eyes speak volumes in scenes where Deoborah Johnson(Dominique Fishback), Hampton’s partner,  confesses her fears and doubts to him, or the mother of a fallen comrade fondly recalls memories of her little boy.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt fosters the film’s moral dilemma with quintessential moody, neo-noir lighting, casting shadows that spell moral ambiguity and doubt across O’Neal’s actions throughout the film. Can he prove he is faithful to the cause? Will he trust the eccentric man with a newspaper at the bar?

 In the film’s opening, director Shaka King sets the tone as red neon lettering and a candy rose convertible smothers a nervous O’Neal in one shot, while the film’s jazzy score—courtesy of Craig Harris and Mark Isham— sews anxiety into another. 

During a heartbreaking montage, editor Kristan Sprague cuts between intimate poetry and unjust betrayal. 

Judas is a sophisticated retelling of a historical movement and the hypocrisy and corruption that sought to destroy it.
Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming now on HBO Max, or catch it in select theaters.

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