I was initially suspicious about Shaka King‘s Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros., 2.12), a period drama about late ’60s Black Panther activist and firebrand Fred Hampton, who was murdered by the FBI in December ’69.
One thing I didn’t care for was the on-the-nose title. The Chicago-based Hampton, 21 at the time of his death, cared a great deal about revolutionary social change, but there was nothing messianic about the guy — he was just a dedicated, no-bullshit leader of the Illinois branch.
Secondly I didn’t trust the early award-season enthusiasm shared by Variety‘s Clayton Davis, especially given his Awards Circuit ties to Keith Lucas, who co-authored early drafts of the Messiah script (and who shares a story credit with his brother Kenny)
Then I saw Judas and the Black Messiah a couple of weeks ago, and right away I found myself trusting — believing in — the ’70s milieu and the unforced, matter-of-fact, Sidney Lumet-ish mood of the thing. King isn’t trying to make a 2020 BLM version of what happened in Chicago 51 years ago, but attempting to show the way things actually were. He’s really dug into the history and the climate.
And so the serving is tangy and authentic — convincing late ‘60s milieu, first-rate lensing by Sean Bobbitt, unforced editing by Kristan Sprague, ace-level production design and art direction by Sam Lisenco and Jeremy Woolsey (respectively), and drillbit performances top to bottom. Bobbitt, of course, has been Steve McQueen‘s dp for several years (Hunger, Shame, 12 years A Slave, Widows).
I was especially struck by the fact that Judas and the Black Messiah is only partly an attempted deification of Daniel Kaluuya‘s Hampton, although a valiant effort is made to sell Hampton as a charismatic, sexy-eyed hardcore. The surprise is that LaKeith Stanfield‘s portrayal of the real-life William O’Neal, a guilty, haunted FBI snitch who ratted Hampton out and wound up committing suicide at age 51, is a far more fascinating figure.
Kaluuya is fine as far as Hampton is written, but Stanfield owns this film. The twitchy O’Neal is oddly more affecting because he’s a jittery, two-faced rat in a cage, and on some strange level your heart goes out to the poor fucker. He’s Gypo Nolan in The Informer but without the boozy bellowing.
All through the film you’re muttering “stand up, save yourself, don’t do this, stand with your own,” and there’s something about O’Neal’s failure to do this combined with that look of trepidation in his eyes….it’s not that he’s “sympathetic” (far from it) but his dodgy personality and the pressures upon him constitute a more interesting character.
So I’m sorry but the smartest SAG + Oscar play isn’t a Best Actor push for Kaluuya (although there’s no harm in trying) but a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor nomination for Stanfield. If Victor MacLaglen could win Best Actor for The Informer, Stanfield should be an easy pocket drop, especially considering that his performance is far more complex than McLaglen’s.
Best Director and Best Cinematography noms are also warranted. Kudos also to the supporting cast — Jesse Plemons as O’Neal’s FBI handler plus Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen (as J. Edgar Hoover), Algee Smith, Lil Rel Howery, Jermaine Fowler.
A friend says he “isn’t as high on it” as I am. “There have been so many movies like it before (Donnie Brasco, American Gangster) and the betrayal aspect also reminded me of White Heat, but the performances are excellent (especially Stanfield) and Bobbit’s photography should get nominated.”