Chicago in the late 1960s was a boiling pot of water bubbling over with racial and political tension on a near daily basis, making it ripe territory for dramatic cinema.
Aaron Sorkin took his pen to the task with the Oscar-contending Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix late last year and now a better, transcendent film will hit theaters and HBO Max on Friday.
A late addition to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Judas and the Black Messiah approaches the tensions from a different angle as director Shaka King puts his camera lens squarely on the betrayal of a civil rights activist that ultimately led to his murder.
Inspired by real events, the film follows Bill O’Neal, a car thief convinced to avoid jail time by infiltrating the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and getting in with the group’s leader, Fred Hampton, a target of J. Edgar Hoover who described Hampton as a “black Messiah” that would lead to the downfall of America.
Academy Award nominee Daniel Kaluuya offers a very humanistic, idealistic performance as Hampton, striking deep into the souls of viewers with his piercing eyes and crisp, confident delivery.
If Hampton is to be the titular Black Messiah, than Kaluuya grants him a calm confidence of wisdom without fear that isn’t self-righteousness or indignation, but part of a larger than life persona that was able to rally support behind his cause of revolutionary freedom and draw the ire of Hoover-era FBI agents seeking to take Hampton down.
Though Kaluuya is exceptionally special in the role of Hampton, Judas isn’t his film; it’s LaKeith Stanfield’s.
As O’Neal, Stanfield is an expert at showing the infiltrator playing both sides against the middle until the weight of the world ultimately comes crashing down on him. Stanfield quietly maintains a level of stoicism to O’Neal that’s required to keep the spy-craft under cover, but his ability to show small cracks of insecurity to the audience without being so obvious that other characters would notice makes O’Neal a worthy antagonist to Hampton.
King’s film is littered with an array of terrific supporting performances from Dominique Fishback’s award-worthy turn as Hampton’s fiancé Deborah Johnson to veteran character actor Jesse Plemons pushing the envelope as O’Neal’s FBI handler to Ashton Sanders and Algee Smith playing a pair of young Panthers with scene-stealing confrontations with police.
King cuts corners in the narrative to expedite the drama and accelerate the action with style rather than simply hitting all the bullet-points of the historical record, opting to trust the audience to connect the dots rather than spell things out like a documentary.
Judas is a film about emotions – both spoken and shown – and has the aura of inevitability to it like the ominous scent of death wafts over scenes as Hampton preaches to the people.
The message is clear and unapologetic, one that Trial of the Chicago Seven approaches with a stroke of a pen. By contrast, Judas forces audiences to see down the barrel of a gun.
The film’s anti-police rhetoric will play in stark reflection to moments over the past year, but this is done as much to remain authentic to the late 1960s power struggle between the Black Panthers and government officials as it is to make commentary on current events.
The only film released in 2021 with a guaranteed shot at 2020 Academy Awards nominations or wins with the extended eligibility timeframe, Judas should be a late contender for a Best Picture nomination and a lock for Kaluuya’s second Oscar nomination, this time in a supporting role.
A strong wave of support for the film could easily propel King into the Best Director and Best Screenplay conversation and less likely push Stanfield into Best Actor and Fishback into Best Supporting Actress contention.
Unquestionably the best film of 2021 so far and the crown jewel of Sundance, Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful statement of arrival for King as a director combined with enchanting performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield.
It’s a pot-stirring, conversation-starting must see thrill ride from start to finish that will have audiences on the edge of their seats for two hours with one of the boldest directorial debuts in recent memory.
Note: This review was written after screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival ahead of its release to the general public on February 12.