Two of the most exciting actors of their generation reunite to share the screen in Judas and The Black Messiah, a drama that is hoping to be among the winners come awards season. This true story stars Lakieth Stanfield (Sorry To Bother You, Uncut Gems) as Bill O’Neal, a petty car thief caught by the FBI and coerced into working as an informant. His objective – to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Blank Panther Party, and get close to their influential young leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). As Bill gets further into this world, however, a bond forms with Hampton as O’Neal begins to suspect he may be on the wrong side.
The energy of the late 60s is brought to life in a story that has an intriguing set-up. The plot follows a familiar undercover template, where an informant enters into a criminal underworld only to become too involved. However, the context is what sets this version apart. As the title suggests, O’Neal becomes a traitor to an organisation looking to make his life better as an African American, in the service of white government agents who see him as disposable. He is not only betraying a friend in Hampton, he is turning his back on a movement.
It’s a compelling premise played out beautifully by Stanfield, who paints O’Neal as someone initially out for themselves as he tries to save his own hide, only to become aware of the bigger picture. It’s contrasted beautifully with the electric Kaluuya, once again standing out in what is arguably a supporting role. The focus on O’Neal means we don’t get enough of a sense of Hampton as a person in the script, but Kaluuya has a powerful presence from the moment we see him on a stage at a local rally.
It’s more than speeches, however. We see the difficulties balancing his life and The Cause through his relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), and his impending fatherhood suddenly adding more risk to his clashes with the establishment. There’s no bravery without risk, and while the film might have benefitted from a larger spotlight on Hampton, we are made well aware of the price of fighting for a better future.
Added to the ensemble are talented character actors who illustrate the establishment Hampton is pushing against. Jesse Plemons, another quietly excellent supporting player, is unsettling as Roy Mitchell, the agent who ropes O’Neal into his employ. While seemingly friendly towards him, there is an underlining apathy toward both Bill and The Black Panthers than seems more horrifying than if he were the overt bigot that Martin Sheen portrays in one scene as J Edgar Hoover. Mitchell seems to be more motivated by a promotion than he is the fate of society, and this self-interested apathy is something that many may recognise in today’s figures of power.
As with Spike Lee’s 2018 Oscar winner Blackkklansman, Judas and The Black Messiah is a gripping undercover story that offers extra impact through its modern parallels. While the story may not delve as deeply into the figures portrayed as it might have, towering performances from the leads remind us that these struggles from the past are vital to our understanding of the present. Judas and The Black Messiah is available On Demand from 26th February