One of the big Oscar possibilities for this year dropped this weekend on HBO Max, as well as select theaters. It is a biopic set in the racially explicit 1960s after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X where the chairman of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, rises to the top of the FBI’s target list and an FBI informant is sent into the world of the militant organization to gather information.
Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) was a small time car thief who would pretend to be an FBI agent to make it easy to rip off the automobiles. Caught by the police, O’Neal was pressured into becoming an informant and sent into the Black Panthers. The film then records the tragic events that followed involving Hampton and the rst.
Daniel Kaluuya is wonderful as Fred Hampton, showing both his dedication to the ideas of the organization as well as his connection to his family. Kaluuya most likely will receive an Oscar nomination for his work here and it would be very deserving.
LaKeith Stanfield is compelling as William “Bill” O’Neal, showing us the conflict he had within himself over what he was being forced to do by the FBI, in particular, Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). It was obvious that O’Neal did not want to be in this situation, but he found himself stuck and he made a decision that put himself first.
The one actor who stood out like a giant prosthetic nose was Martin Sheen, who had a limited role as FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. I have always enjoyed the work of the former President Jed Bartlett (from West Wing), but as soon as I saw him with that nose, I was completely distracted and it pulled me out of the film. As I said, Hoover had very limited screen time and that was a good thing for me.
Unfortunately, Judas and the Black Messiah continues to feel relevant for the world today, as black people continue to be treated poorly, if not fatally, by police. You can see some of the outright cruelty shown by the police and the FBI of the time and the use of the black revolution as an excuse to attempt to keep them down and maintain the white privilege that has, sadly, remained active to this day. There are some shocking moments in this film and it is an important story to tell.
Some of the quieter moments of the film were less intriguing as the conflict within, but the film is elevated by some top line performances from both Kaluuya and Stanfield.