Judas and the Black Messiah has the best (get ready to hear that word a lot) name of any movie from 2020, its title a slamming and clever statement that tells you everything you need to know about the piece going in. Taking this loaded bomb of a title into every facet of its creation, the film itself is also pretty damn good.
Lakeith Stanfield plays our Judas, Bill O’Neal, a seventeen-year-old punk running scams with a fake FBI badge on the streets of 1960s Chicago. After driving off with a car in a swindle gone wrong, he gets caught and apprehended by the real men in black, who offer the young black man a deal: O’Neal can keep his freedom and even earn some cash on the side if he infiltrates and provides regular intel on the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
An eye-opening, emotionally disconcerting series of events then unravel as O’Neal cozies up to the regional chairman of the BPP, our titular black messiah, Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton, while being wined and dined by the Bureau. It’s an instantly engrossing narrative in no small part due to director Shaka King’s breathlessly tense telling of the duo’s true story, whose tight, pressing grip only ramps up through the progression of the film’s boggling and, frankly, near unbelievable tale of federal corruption.
There isn’t one big recurrent theme in the movie; rather, King and his co-writer Will Berson’s screenplay paints in broader swaths as everything unfolds, detailing everything from allegiance to one’s people, the nobility of a cause, greed, self-preservation, and more. They’re not as deep as other films of similar ilk, but they come together to support the raw feelings of conflict at the film’s heart. Hampton’s crusade through Chicago is so important and fascinating I partly wish there was more explored in some of the grayer elements of the BPP, though, not to critique, but to delve further into the amazing efforts the organization reached in helping people in need, especially given their political philosophies at the time.
But Judas and the Black Messiah wouldn’t be what it is if it didn’t house the year’s crowning achievements in Stanfield and Kaluuya’s set of performances. The passion and nobility in Kaluuya’s voice scorches the screen in a performance worthy of the character’s grandiose epithet, and the all-consuming wrack of guilt and conflict in Stanfield’s character bubbles so fiercely from every look and pore of the actor his performance could stand on its own from his eyes alone.