If you know nothing about the film, I recommend you go in as blind as possible, just know that Judas and the Black Messiah is a must-watch, whether at a theater or on HBO Max.
As it is based on a true story, it’d be easy to go in-depth with the events of the film, but I’ll keep plot details to as much of a minimum as possible. Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King, follows Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party with the help of his FBI contact Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) in 1968 Chicago. The Illinois chapter is spearheaded by the charismatic Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the entire FBI by extension see as a massive threat to America’s then-current way of life.
The acting is top-notch here; everyone is on their A-game. Daniel Kaluuya is particularly fantastic and quite possibly Oscar-worthy. While you may not agree with everything he’s saying, it’s hard not to with how charismatic he is and just how much you can tell he believes in everything he’s saying.
LaKeith Stanfield is great, too, but turns in a much more subdued performance. His character is put through every conceivable obstacle you could possibly throw at someone and is irreversibly changed by the end of the film, both in his mental state and personality.
Jesse Plemons, as always, is a fantastically hate-able character; he’s had a talent for those types of characters ever since Like Mike and proved later with his role in Breaking Bad. With the little screen time he gets. Martin Sheen absolutely makes the most of it. His portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover is played up to make him as unlikeable as possible, but that’s the point. He’s a symbol of the powerful racists in America, both back then and today.
The cinematography is serviceable for the most part, but there’s not a lot of special things going on. There’s a few creative shots here and there, but the majority is the standard drama shot list. I could’ve gone for a bit more camera movement. This isn’t a film focused on the visuals though, so being average in this department isn’t the biggest deal.
I also don’t think the score sticks out all that much. On one hand, a great score can make a great film even better, but on the other, a big and bombastic score can make dramatic moments come off as cheesy. I’m leaning toward it being a good thing; it doesn’t take any attention away from the performances happening front and center.
The performances and plot are what truly matter here. This story is as socially and politically important today as it was when it happened over 50 years ago. Judas and the Black Messiah has a lot to say, most of it should be obvious from the subject matter, but that doesn’t make what it has to say any less powerful or pertinent.
The final 15-to-20 minutes are horrifying, heartbreaking, infuriating and a monument to the wrongdoings of the justice system, and those who are sworn to uphold it. Do not miss out on this film.