(Photo Courtesy of HBO Max) “Judas and the Black Messiah” is based on a true story of an FBI informant, William O’Neal.
In theaters and available to stream on HBO Max, “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021) is directed by Shaka King who is known for “Newlyweeds” (2013) and “Mulignans” (2015). The film follows William O’Neal, a career criminal, after he gets caught stealing a car. To avoid prison, O’Neal becomes an FBI informant and is assigned a job where he must infiltrate the Illinois Black Panther Party and become close to their chairman, Fred Hampton. The film tells a powerful and poignant story that is incredibly timely.
First pitched to A24 and Netflix back in 2014 by The Lucas Brothers, a film about Fred Hampton had been bouncing around in Hollywood for several years. When the script finally came to Shaka King, it was set into motion and reworked with help of Will Berson and The Lucas Brothers.
By far, the best part of the film is the shockingly true story of Fred Hampton and how FBI informant William O’Neal played a hand in Hampton’s ultimate downfall. The film shows Hampton’s goal of helping his community and assembling people of all races and creeds to found the Rainbow Coalition in their struggle for social change. The film also delves into the history of how J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, made it the FBI’s mission to prevent, in his words, the rise of a black messiah in the civil rights movement.
The film may focus on Hoover trying to take down Fred Hampton, but this was not out of character for Hoover as he had tried to undermine and discredit Martin Luther King Jr. for years. The recent documentary “MLK/FBI” (2021) delves more into FBI’s surveillance caused by the racist and vicious paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover.
The film has some very competent cinematography as King brought on cinematographer Sean Bobbitt for the project. Bobbitt is known for his frequent collaboration with director Steve McQueen on films such as “Hunger” (2008), “Shame” (2011) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013). One of the first scenes in the film has a well-thought-out, lengthy, single uncut shot. The lighting throughout the film, especially in the night shots, were very well done. King and Bobbitt delivered a very clear and active visual direction.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” falters a bit when it comes to the script. There is a strong historical story behind this film, but when it comes to some of the more intimate moments between characters behind closed doors, they are not as well-planned as they could be. Moments in the film that portrayed well-documented historical events were executed nicely, such as Fred Hampton’s public speeches. Meanwhile, with scenes like when O’Neal gets to know FBI agent, Roy Mitchell, there seems to some disconnect to the dialogue.
O’Neal is played by LaKeith Stanfield, who is known for films such as “Sorry to Bother You” (2018) and “Knives Out” (2019). As the main character, he gives a rather strong performance. Stanfield very effectively mimicked O’Neal’s subtle mannerisms that are seen in his public interview.
Daniel Kaluuya, known for films such as “Sicario” (2015), “Get Out” (2017) and “Black Panther” (2018), portrays Fred Hampton. Kaluuya throws everything into this role. Having more to work with, he captures Hampton’s gravitas, especially in his big public moments. Although he does not have the same tone of voice, mainly due to the age gap between him and Hampton at the time of the story, Kaluuya achieves the same accent and speech patterns. Kaluuya also has great chemistry with Dominique Fishback, who plays his on-screen counterpart.
Jesse Plemons, from “Breaking Bad” (2013) and “Game Night” (2018), does a decent job as Roy Mitchell. However, he did not deliver anything too noteworthy. On the other hand, Martin Sheen gave a strong performance and plays a very dislikeable J. Edgar Hoover, which is expected from an actor of his caliber.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” recognizes and draws a parallel between the biblical Judas Iscariot and William O’Neal. Although the film does not have the strongest script, it is filled with incredible performances and has a good direction that eclipses any other issues it may have. Considering how timely and educational the film is, it is definitely worth a watch.
Overall Rating: A-