Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Nearly everything about Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) guarantees its standing as a critically acclaimed Academy Award hopeful. From the respected cast, to the prestigious producer, to the socially relevant and historical subject matter, it’s fair to say Judas and The Black Messiah would’ve gotten attention even if it wasn’t one of the best films of the year. People will most likely compare it to the works of Spike Lee, but that may perpetuate the idea that films about African American civil rights can only be ranked against each other. Spike Lee is definitely one of the greatest living directors and being likened to him is nothing to snigger at, but it should be noted that Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) deserves a deeper analysis.
Set in Chicago circa 1969, we are introduced to 17-year-old thief William ‘Bill’ O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who is busted impersonating an officer while stealing a car. To avoid prison time, O’Neal accepts an offer by Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther party and provide information to the FBI. His main task is to spy on Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the infamous leader of the chapter whom the FBI sees as a tremendous terrorist threat. O’Neal is constantly living on a knife edge, always looking over his shoulder wondering if one of the Black Panther members is close to figuring out he’s an informant. This gets complicated as O’Neal becomes a trusted member of Hampton’s inner circle, which coincides with his growing commitment to the cause.
While this is based on true events, there are already plenty of fictional thrillers about police informants who feel kinship with their target. Happily, Judas and Black Messiah raises the genre’s bar far beyond the typical clichés you’d find in things like Point Break (1991) or The Fast and the Furious (2001). This is where you can see the varied influences in the film’s DNA, as it has far more in common with Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) than it does with Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018). This can even be traced back to the film’s original pitch, which was a mix of The Departed and The Conformist (1970). The Scorsese comparison is especially apt when looking at how the film effectively revels in an unbearably foreboding sense of dread, matching O’Neal’s fear of being brutally killed for his treachery.
Connecting Judas and the Black Messiah to the tropes of informant thrillers is part of what makes it such a unique and complicated experience. In most cases, the protagonist (and by extension the viewer) still has a clear allegiance to the police, as they generally have the undisputed moral high ground. That’s not the case here, as we find ourselves completely aligning our moral desires with the supposed ‘outlaws’ without ever noticing the changeover. This is achieved even with the first half doing everything it can to show just how threatening the Black Panther Party was perceived to be. It’s a tricky storytelling goal which could’ve gone horribly wrong, but the result has guaranteed the viewer will give their full sympathy to the Party’s fight for liberation. This gives O’Neal’s conflict added layers of nuance, as it makes his guilt over secretly working for oppressors incredibly potent. We aren’t only fearing for his life, but also hoping for his revolutionary commitment.
Director Shaka King is fully aware of the narrative’s staggering tension and compliments it by delivering a tangibly grim recreation of 1960s Chicago. Too many period pieces look and feel like they’ve been created on a soundstage or in a computer, but King has brought the era to vivid life. If there’s any computer generated trickery, it’s completely undetectable as it literally feels like we’ve been dropped right in the centre of authentically real action. The shootouts and confrontations aren’t glamorous or gratuitous, as every gunshot and every blood spatter shocks you into mourning the loss of life. This permeates throughout the entire film, even causing Chicago itself to feel like a character who’s life and soul is at stake.
Part of what makes the city feel so real is the extensive cast of characters, all brought to life by engaging and authentic performances. Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Jermaine Fowler all shine in their roles, but Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield steal the show as Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal respectively. Stanfield completely embodies a man torn between his desperation, guilt and cultural pride, creating a character arguably as compelling as Leonardo Di Caprio in The Departed or Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco (1997). Kaluuya is similarly compelling, displaying a distinct sense of pride, power and leadership. There’s an introspection to his work, which constantly endears the viewer to him.
With that in mind, ‘introspection’ is the best word to describe the way in which the film’s themes resonate. There’s the expected narrative layers around racism, empowerment and civil liberties, but King makes sure they all build to greater depths. Specifically, King directs all the stories thematic weapons to an analysis of justice and (more importantly) the miscarriage of justice. Sure, most films about police infiltrators naturally import discussions around corruption, yet we can always be sure the wrong doers are punished. That’s not the case here, as King examines how what was once seen as heroic now reads as a horrible crime, made even more tragic due to the perpetrators being lawmen. In a weird way, it’s even the most clear and potent example of why many people don’t actually feel safe around those who are supposed to protect us.
It’s easy to call something like Judas and the Black Messiah a great film. The stellar direction, powerful storytelling, tight script and enthralling performances easily elevate it beyond the average, but that’s not what makes it stand out. In many cases, so called ‘prestigious’ films don’t linger in the mind long after you see them. They don’t resonate, often feeling like they are disingenuously pandering to viewers and awards voters. To be fair, Judas and the Black Messiah definitely has awards on its mind, but you’ll probably also be thinking about it for a good while.
Best way to watch it: With all doors and windows locked.