REEL Review – Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Director: Shaka King | 2h 6mins | Biography, Drama

Small time car thief, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Steinfeld), is caught impersonating the FBI. Instead of going to prison, O’Neal cuts a deal to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party as well as it’s Chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

Judas and the Black Messiah is the third feature from director Shaka King, a director that has worked notably in TV and on short films. But now, with a bigger budget and vision in mind, the director has burst onto our screens with one of the strongest films we’ve seen so far in 2021. The film works, not just as an educational retelling of an important figure in the Civil Rights movement, but as a wonderfully tense affair that is strong with conviction – not afraid to finally shed light on just how horrific the FBI was under J. Edgar Hoover. 

Main character Bill O’Neall (played by Lakeith Steinfeld) is a car thief who uses the disguise of an FBI agent to take his prizes, but when he’s caught he’s subjected to years of undercover work by ‘friendly-faced’ agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). Once inside the party, the job requires O’Neill to get as close as possible to the powerful and charismatic Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther chapter, Fred Hampton. 

King’s screenplay, along with co-writer Will Berson, does a great job at containing everything. Often we see films of similar conviction sacrifice their themes to target the bigger picture but what Judas and the Black Messiah does so well is maintain consistency. It keeps the internal struggle of O’Neal front and centre while challenging American history with its focus on Hampton, and the ideals of both the FBI and the Black Panther Party. It does all this all while channeling a wonderful uncertainty and intensity until the very bitter end. 

Often films with a large area to cover lose sight of the personalities running the show, but other than odd moments Judas and the Black Messiah is incredibly balanced. 

Fred Hampton, who may not be a name as recognised as Malcolm X or MLK, was a crucial part of the Civil Rights movement. A leader that was so dedicated to the cause that he was willing to die “for the people”. This kind of conviction and presence can only be played by the best, and luckily for King’s wonderful historic drama it has Daniel Kaluuya acting in probably his finest performance. He plays it with impeccable charm, one that commands a room instantly. But what’s even more important to the performance is his ability to play the rousing revolutionary side – as well as the softer, more poetic side.

For the most part the film is balancing the fiery intensity of it’s undercover story with the powerful image of American history well. There are some instances where O’Neal’s personal conflict surpasses the importance of the big picture, but they eventually become one in the same. Often films with a large area to cover lose sight of the personalities running the show, but other than odd moments Judas and the Black Messiah is incredibly balanced. 

The most effective part of the film is it’s ending, an honest telling of what happened to our characters. Something as simple as text appearing on-screen and the regret of real-life O’Neal (who committed suicide after a Documentary was released in 1990) really hits home everything King is trying to tell us. It’s a feeling that’s really only been matched by Spotlight back in 2015, but the lasting effects of this story are untold and have been left unaccountable, something that King may very well rectify with his wonderfully performed and elegantly made historical drama. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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