“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a solid bio-picture that effectively captures the turmoil and chaos of the civil rights era that saw the rise of the Black Panthers.
The film is anchored by powerful work from Daniel Kaluuya, but that power diminishes slightly with pedestrian direction from Shaka King and a script that tends to stray from its dynamic centerpiece.
“Judas” tells the story of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) and his rise from Chicago activist to chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. As Hampton continues to climb the ranks and gain more power, he becomes a target as the FBI looks to halt his momentum.
That is where Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) enters the picture. O’Neal is a small-time thief who is facing prison time when the FBI approaches him about infiltrating the Black Panthers to provide intel on Hampton.
Seeing this as a way out, O’Neal agrees. But the deeper he becomes imbedded in Hampton’s world, the more conflicted he becomes about his agreement with the FBI.
That is one problem with “Judas,” which tends to focus more on O’Neal and the FBI than it really should. It’s a lot of secret meetings that we have seen before in other films, a retread of any crime informant film you can imagine.
When “Judas” really soars is when Kaluuya’s Hampton takes center stage. He channels the charismatic activist in impressive fashion – especially in the re-creation of some of his political speeches that get to the heart of why he was loved by the Panthers and seen as a danger to those who wanted the status quo.
Kaluuya has gained significant awards buzz and is likely one of the front-runners for best supporting actor. The performance is definitely that good. It evokes memories of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X nearly 30 years ago.
If “Judas” had been more about Hampton and less about O’Neal, this could have been something truly special. As it is, this film doesn’t always pop off screen the way it should – but Kaluuya makes it worth your time. His work makes it easy to forgive any of the film’s shortcomings.