Judas and the Black Messiah tells the true story of the rise of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) as the revolutionary leader of the Black Panther Party and how the organization is infiltrated, and he is ultimately assassinated with the help of a fledgling crook named Bill O’Neal (Stanfield) supported by an unscrupulous FBI system led by J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).
First and foremost, major props to Director Shaka Smith. He is young, but learned, as this is his first true feature film and he succeeds admirably with his tone and angle usage. The tension the audience feels with the inevitable betrayal and death of its lead character was palpable from the opening scene (and the lead wasn’t even in it). It’s not surprising he was given the helm of this subject matter (he co-wrote the screenplay) and we even chimed in to ask why he wanted to make a film focused on the Black Panthers? “The Panthers led with love,” he said. It’s that type of passion that led him to make what he calls “a vast film, a dense film.” He succeeded, watch the film. You’ll see it’s range, its power to incite, Hampton’s propensity to love through a sea of racial hatred and most importantly ‘feel’ what it’s like to be a ‘Judas.’
Lead performances here are no surprise from Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton) and Lakeith Stanfield (Bill O’Neal). Kaluuya is a past Oscar nominee, I knew he could handle the subject matter but asked all the same what drove you to portray Hampton in the film? Said Kaluuya, “his love for his people and I’m humbled and honored.” What I wanted to see (and have not from his past work) is his ability to feel. To show a loving touch and nature. His relationship with Deborah Johnson (mother to his unborn child, played masterfully by Dominique Fishback…more on her later) is where I hoped he could prove it. And he did. His ability to be softer and accessible and still be convincing as a revolutionary leader is what I needed to see, and I did (all without dropping his accent). He’ll get an awards nod for this, but regrettably, he won’t win it. Not because he isn’t that good with the character, but I’ve seen the Best Actor winner already (no spoilers from a Geek!)
Lakeith Stanfield who portrays the ‘Judas’ that is Bill O’Neal gets a nod and hats off from me. It’ll be sensitive to read, but I’ll write it all the same – he brings (to me) a bit of Richard Pryor ‘scared n*gga’ to his roles which seems to fit this film perfectly, after all he’s portraying a Judas – he should be afraid. Not in his dialogue, but in his eyes when it’s needed. From the opening scene which showcases his characters range as a thief, you can see an underlying fear which stays with him as he confidently infiltrates the Panthers, rises through its ranks, deals with the FBI and even becoming Head of Black Panther security. All the while with a confident but doomed look for the fraud he knows he is. There’s a moral burden even portraying such a character, and he spoke about it at great length.
The unsung hero here is relative newcomer but soon to be household name, Dominique Fishback who portrays the lead character Hampton’s empowering, viscerally literal, and fierce girlfriend and fiancé. I had to look up the actress, could there be anything in her past work that showed an inkling of what she poured out here? From her introduction, playing a waifish adorizing young girl – her delivery was perfect. Deifying Hampton but still with a mind of her own – hats off to Director/writer Shaka King for writing her well and major ups to the make-up/production crew for her onscreen appearance. I thought she was 16 when her character meets Hampton for the first time at a rally, I had to Google to find out, the actress is nearing 30yo. You go girl, reached right back into that younger time and brought her through with shining colors, I hope the awards machine sees you this season.
See this film people, if not for its social relevancy – than just to get a bit of education in Black History month. Do you really know what the Black Panthers were all about? A- #JudasandtheBlackMessiah