Judas and the Black Messiah – Sundance 2021 Review

A pair of electrifying performances elevate an otherwise patent and abridged script to bring the brave story of Fred Hampton to screen in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah.

The Black Panther party is ideal fodder for a biopic. Daniel Kaluuya stars as Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter. Still, the film is mainly framed through FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield in an equal powerhouse performance). The police ordered O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther party due to their racist biases and fears of potential violence. We’re first introduced to O’Neal after being reprimanded by the police and subsequently offered a position to avoid punishment. This simple set-up tends to sketch O’Neal’s decisions as vague but allows for tense interactions between him and Hampton. Hampton’s showstopping sermons result in O’Neal realizing his contradictions as a Black man serving as an FBI agent. The film is far less successful when it branches away and chronicles the inner workings of the FBI and wastes screentime on O’Neal’s racist white partner (Jesse Plemmons) as he slowly begins to notice the flawed proceedings of the agency, as well.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is at its best when the slick filmmaking of director Shaka King creates space for two famous actors in their prime to bounce off each other. Kaluuya is a poised performer who can discover the soul of his character when the writing occasionally dips into iconizing. Dominique Fishback is a smoldering scene-stealer as Hampton’s lover fights for the agency as Hampton’s attention is pulled in many different, sometimes dangerous, directions. [B-]

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