If that subheading concerned you about this review being political, don’t worry. I only say that to show that this is a film that is effective in what it wants audiences to think about. We follow Fred Hampton’s story (Daniel Kaluuya), the Illinois chairman of The Black Panther Party, and the infiltration of FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). Even if you know Hampton’s story, I want to give a bit of a warning. In Hampton’s quest for equality for all, we see and hear about many brutal incidents in the past. I won’t spoil what those are if you don’t know the history, but please know that the film can be tough to watch. Thankfully our performances are so strong here that they immediately hook the audience.
As William O’Neal, Stanfield has to draw a tough line in the sand for this character. As someone working to take down a revolutionary, some might ask how you could sympathize with him. Because of an actor like him, while we are meeting him stealing cars and impersonating a federal agent, we feel for his situation. His interactions with an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) immediately makes us tense up as an audience because we don’t know what could happen. Being set in a time of severe racial division, we fear for him getting out of this harrowing situation alive. It’s the sort of performance that requires him to play multiple versions of the same character, and Stanfield does so with ease.
Once he infiltrates the Panthers, we meet Kaluuya in his truly revelatory performance as Hampton. Having seen the film twice now and watching Hampton’s actual footage, Kaluuya emulates who this man was. From the voice to the effect he had on those around him, he displays why Hampton was as influential of a figure as he was. Going from being a hopeful family man with his wife Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) to a revolutionary, it’s a flawless balance. There’s a particular sequence where he gives a speech to the unified parties; he will give you chills. That feeling stuck with me throughout both viewings, and I think it will do the same for everyone. There’s only one other performance that wowed me in from 2020 (review on that film soon), but it’s stiff competition with this one.
The third star of the film is director Shaka King, who looks at the history of this day and age. What the filmmaker gets so entirely is the attention to details in the past. Having the privilege to sit in on a Q&A with the cast, director and Fred Hampton Jr., I was amazed at how accurate the film was. In most of these types of true-life stories, there are individual creative liberties. While there may be some here, it certainly didn’t feel that way. There’s great attention to period detail of the time, which may even reflect what we see in the world today.
“Judas and The Black Messiah” is a flawless piece of filmmaking. Though an acted film, some moments feel like a documentary. Add in a rich, specific, and timely soundtrack you feel like you’re seeing a glimpse of Chicago in the 80s. Throw in two of the most revelatory performances of the year, and you won’t be disappointed. Even in Fishback, Plemons, and Martin Sheen’s supporting performances in two scenes as J Edgar Hoover, nothing feels performed. It’s a rare feat to accomplish, but King delivers on a film that will make us think but, most importantly, feel.
Watch the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSjtGqRXQ9Y