“Judas and the Black Messiah” was directed by Shaka King and stars Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, and Dominique Fishback. It’s based on the true story of the assassination of Fred Hampton (played by Kaluuya), a chairman of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960’s, and focuses on the involvement of Bill O’Neal. Lakeith Stanfield plays O’Neal, an ex-con used by the FBI to infiltrate the party. Basically, the movie is one half “The Departed” and one half “Malcolm X.”
One of my favorite aspects of the film is the acting. Everyone gives some of the best performances of their careers. Jesse Plemons of “Breaking Bad” fame played FBI agent Roy Mitchell in the film, and I thought he was great. He started out as a seemingly polite and caring person, but as the film progressed he became more and more emotionally detached and controlling. Daniel Kaluuya was also fantastic; it’s clear he put a lot of effort into replicating the real Fred Hampton’s voice and mannerisms. However, I thought Lakeith Stanfield gave the best performance of the film. He was paranoid when he wasn’t with the Black Panthers and was confident & fierce when he was with them. He felt like a real informant.
The environment of the movie was realistic and was well-developed. I felt the tension between the Black Panthers and the police/FBI throughout the entire film, which was clearly the intention of the filmmakers. Speaking of the filmmakers, Shaka King’s direction was phenomenal. He brought a lot of intensity into the film and also was a great director of actors. He had a needed style to his filmmaking, and the scene where Hampton is eventually murdered was flawlessly executed. I couldn’t think of a better way to handle it.
The cinematography and lighting might have been the best I’ve seen since “1917.” There was very little shaky cam (which I hate by the way), and when there was shaky cam, it wasn’t jarring or out of place. The use of close-ups was great too, and it wasn’t overused like it is in other films.
As for how factually accurate “Judas and the Black Messiah” is, I’m not sure. In movies based on true events, there has to be some added drama/tension, and I’m sure there were dramatic beats added to this film. I thought the handling of the political and racial issues was respectful; the filmmakers weren’t afraid to go dark at all, which was very important for this type of movie.
My only gripe worth mentioning is that the movie could have further fleshed out the romance between Hampton and his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (played by Dominique Fishback). I thought their chemistry was satisfactory, but they didn’t have enough scenes in which their relationship progressed. There was a scene of them meeting, two scenes of them having casual conversation, and then they acted like a married couple for the rest of the movie.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a great movie that tells an important story effectively. The acting, direction, setting, and character arcs are well-executed, and this is the best film of 2020 so far.