REVIEW: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is a powerful, magnetic drama

The use of confidential informants, as this film shows in great detail, can be a problematic law enforcement measure.

In this case, the movie is about informant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a young man who is arrested for pretending to be an FBI agent to steal a car. Rather than be charged right away, though, O’Neal is given an opportunity by bureau agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Not long before Mitchell gave O’Neal the opportunity, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) announced that Black Panther Illinois Leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) needed to be monitored.

That’s the job offered by Mitchell, and to avoid prison time, O’Neal reluctantly accepts. O’Neal makes his way into the Black Panthers organization and over time, establishes himself as a full-fledged member. As a result, O’Neal begins getting closer to Hampton and is able to report his findings to the FBI. However, with tensions seeming to rise all around him, O’Neal finds himself being pulled in two directions.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a deeply informative period piece and an intense procedural drama all at once. The movie explores the Black Panther organization with nuance, while also diving into the unjust way the FBI and law enforcement treated any African American who tried to organize to improve the lives of people in a community.

At the same time, the flick is suspenseful in how it plays out like a dark law enforcement drama. Scenes of O’Neal having to prove his loyalty to other Black Panther members, his meetings with bureau agents, and his need to make decisions on the fly makes the movie quite engaging.

By the third act, there’s a point where O’Neal doesn’t know exactly who to trust and that paranoia can be felt by the audience.

Co-writer and director Shaka King does amazing work in helming this movie in what is his second feature film. It’s an engrossing cinematic watch, with King maintaining a steady pace, while building the intrigue and suspense as it goes along.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

The movie is also gripping because of its well written, fierce social commentary. It’s a moving, insightful piece of art.

Daniel Kaluuya definitely gives the standout performance here and should without a doubt be in consideration for an Academy Award. He is phenomenal as Hampton, capturing the calm but strong leadership style, while also humanizing the character.

That’s not to say Stanfield is completely overshadowed, though. During his time on screen, Stanfield does admirable work as he plays a character who must remain stoic on the outside, despite being troubled by his predicament.

Credit should go to the technical aspects, too. The film succeeds as a period piece and there’s a grittiness that makes the viewing more attention-grabbing.

There are a few moments in the second act dealing with side characters that are just a bit hard to follow, but this is a minor issue and in the end, the movie rallies for an emotionally powerful finish. 4.75 out of 5.


Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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