I must confess that I had some prejudice on the Black Panther Party when I was young and wild many years ago. Probably because of that brief comical moment in “Forrest Gump” (1994), I once regarded the Black Panther Party as nothing but a pesky and aggressive political group, but I subsequently got some enlightenment via several films and documentaries including “Night Catches Us” (2010) and “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” (2015), and I have discerned the considerable overlap between the Black Lives Matter movement and what was pursued by the Black Panther Party and some other African American political groups during that turbulent era.
Therefore, Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” surely drew my interest as the story about one of the most prominent members of the Black Panther Party and a man who betrayed that person, but, after watching it at last night, I feel rather conflicted about whether it works as well as intended in terms of story and characters. It surely has a fascinating social/historical subject to show and tell us, and I appreciate its sincere efforts, but I must also point out that the result is not always successful dues to several weak aspects about which I will discuss a bit below.
After quickly establishing how things were gloomy and difficult for many African American people during the late 1960s, the movie, which is mainly set in Chicago, promptly moves onto how Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) became an FBI informant around that time. After getting arrested for falsely assuming himself as an FBI agent during his botched robbery attempt, O’Neal is brought to a real FBI agent named Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), and Agent Mitchell gives him an offer he cannot possibly refuse. Instead of going to jail, O’Neal will have to work for Agent Mitchell, and their main target is none other than Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who has been quite notable as the young and charismatic chairman of the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago.
Once he infiltrates into the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago as instructed by Agent Mitchell, O’Neal slowly comes to gain the trust from Hampton and other Black Panther members, and we observe Hampton and his colleagues’ many social/political activities via O’Neal’s viewpoint. In addition to helping and supporting their African American black community more than one way, Hampton and his colleagues also try to unite themselves and various local political groups together for resisting against the power that be, and there is a tense but amusing scene where Hampton and several other Black Panther members boldly come to a meeting full of poor white trash guys for, surprise, solidarity.
As he gradually becomes a key member of the group after Hampton is unjustly arrested and then sentenced to a 5-year imprisonment, O’Neal naturally becomes more nervous about his current status being precariously balanced between FBI and the Black Panther Party, but he only finds himself pushed further by his handler, who is also pushed more by his direct boss and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). As your typical bigot, Hoover is quite determined to crush not only Hampton but also the Black Panther Party by any means necessary, and he is already ready to go further around the time when Hampton later gets a temporary release.
This is surely a very tricky situation for O’Neal, but the screenplay by King and his co-writers Will Berson, Kenny Lucas, and Keith Lucas is frustratingly vague and ambiguous about what O’Neal exactly thinks and feels about his supposedly complicated circumstance. At first, he just follows whatever he is told to do by his handler, but then he seems to have some reservation on that as getting to know more of Hampton and the Black Panther Party, though the movie never clarifies his exact position on what is represented by Hampton or many other prominent African American activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X.
Lakeith Stanfield, who has always been an interesting actor to watch since his harrowing supporting turn in “Short Term 12” (2013), tries as much as he can for bringing human qualities to his character, but O’Neal in the film remains to be more or less than a cipher who becomes increasingly distant to us, and his several scenes with Jesse Plemons are perfunctory at best and artificial at worst. Plemons is a good and colorful actor to say the least, but he is unfortunately limited and bleached by his bland supporting role, and the same thing can be said about Martin Sheen, who is utterly unconvincing with lots of makeup in addition to being a glaring case of miscasting.
Fortunately for us, these and other flaws in the film are mostly compensated by the more energetic other half represented by Hampton and his colleagues, and Daniel Kaluuya, a British actor who has been more prominent since his breakout Oscar-nominated turn in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017), is simply electrifying and compelling in his strong nuanced performance which may garner him an Oscar nomination in next month. In case of the other notable main cast members in the film, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, and Lil Rel Howery are well-cast in their respective parts, and Fishback is particularly poignant in her few intimate scenes with Kaluuya.
In conclusion, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is not entirely without flaws, but it will make an interesting double feature along with Aaron Sorkin’s recent film “The Trial of Chicago 7” (2020), which incidentally overlaps a bit with “Judas and the Black Messiah”. Although the movie could be improved by more narrative and character development in my humble opinion, I recommend it anyway for the strong performances from Kaluuya and several other main performers, and you may come to reflect more on its important story subject which is still relevant even at present.