Review: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Director: Shaka King
Screenwriters: Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth Lucas, Keith Lucas
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders
Genres: Drama, History
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and pervasive language
Release Dates: 2/12/21 (Streaming/Theatres)
Runtime: 2h 6min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Supporting Actor (Kaluuya), Original Song (“Fight for You”); Possible–Picture; Possible–Supporting Actress (Fishback), Original Screenplay, Production Design; Long-Shot–Director, Actor (Stanfield), Supporting Actor (Plemons), Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Sound

The long-anticipated Judas and the Black Messiah only opened last month, at the [mostly virtual] Sundance Film Festival. I was busy working and, besides, high-profile movies such as this became sold out very quickly. Immediately, the buzz surrounding the film was all positive, mainly praising the story and the terrific performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. And, as much as I would’ve loved to have seen this movie in a theater, it’s still a powerful, well-made film with stand-out work from Kaluuya, Stanfield, as well as Jesse Plemons and Dominique Fishback. It has some minor flaws that are able to be transcended, thanks to what I just mentioned. 

Judas is directed by Shaka King, best known for comedies, and King treats the story and its characters with the utmost care and respect that they deserve. Along with his co-writers, King has crafted a story that depicts William O’Neil (Stanfield) as both a victim as a victimizer; while we understand his reasoning for betraying Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), we recognize the unethical nature of this betrayal. I knew very little about this aspect of U.S. history, and my limited knowledge mostly stemmed from articles about the film in Entertainment Weekly and from the 2020 release The Trial of the Chicago 7. All I really knew was that O’Neil betrayed Hampton, which lead to his death (not a spoiler). And, even though I knew [generally] how it ended, the journey was still really fascinating and emotional. 

There’s no denying the power of Kaluuya’s performance, and it’s easy to see why he’s been so lauded; he may just win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year. (On that note, I view Kaluuya’s Hampton more as a co-lead to Stanfield’s O’Neal, as we spend a fair amount of time seeing things from Hampton’s perspective). Despite being over a decade older than Hampton was at the time of his death — Stanfield is also quite a bit older than O’Neal was at the time — Kaluuya seems to channel Hampton’s energy, speech patterns, and personality. He’s just as magnetic as he is in the smaller amounts (especially with Dominique Fishback) as he is in the bigger moments, such as when he’s giving Black Panther speeches. 

As excellent as Kaluuya is, Stanfield is really just as good, and not receiving nearly enough praise. He believably portrays O’Neal as someone who is conflicted and unsure if what he is doing is right, even though he isn’t particularly passionate about the cause [of Civil Rights]. If the Best Actor race wasn’t so crowded already, I’d say he had a shot, but that’s not the case. With this leading role, he has proved he’s as gifted with dramatic roles as he is with comedic roles (see Sorry to Bother You). And, let’s not forget Fishback, who was the best thing about last summer’s disappointing Project Power. Even though her character is fairly underdeveloped in this film, she does the best with what she is given. She’s particularly heartbreaking in her final shot of the movie. I’m excited to see what she does next. 

For all its strengths, Judas has some minor flaws, including the strange casting of Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover. Not only are his prosthetics distracting, but it’s hard to imagine the man who once played President Bartlet could portray the evil, unlikable Hoover. Also, I’m not sure the character was even needed; he could’ve simply been referenced by Jesse Plemons’ agent Mitchell.  On that note, Plemons is solid, as always, and he manages to make the character both intense and well-intentioned. 

Another issue I found with the film is that the script sometimes tries to focus on other supporting characters whose stories we really don’t know or understand. That all said, Judas and the Black Messiah is still very compelling and well-acted.