Judas and the Black Messiah

By Joanna Langfield

I rarely dream about movies right after screening them, but this fact based drama slammed into my sleep. That’s how impactful it is.

While it may be structured as a traditional undercover agent story, filmmaker Shaka King insures we are left to think as well as be thoroughly entertained. Because this is the tale of two real life men, one forced into a deal he can’t live with; the other, assuming a role he can’t live without. William O’Neal is caught in the act, stealing a car and impersonating an officer. He could go to prison for a long time. Or he could go undercover, infiltrating the Illinois Black Panther Party, a new community based organization that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wants gone. O’Neal’s task is to scope out the group, but, primarily, to report on the activities of its charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton. As happens in most of these dramatic retellings of such situations, our good guy/bad guy lines, set up as clear and distinct, begin to fade. O’Neal doesn’t only worry about his own safety, he begins to worry about just what he’s being asked to do. Maybe the Panthers are, as he’s being told, a threat to society. But then again, maybe they aren’t.

Four leading actors do stellar work here. The always impressive Jesse Plemons toes that wavering morality line with a fascinating authority, wordlessly knowing he, like his subordinate, has a job to do but also wondering just how far it’s right to go. There’s lovely work from Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s strong and steady partner. But the core push/pull works as well as it does much in part because of the excellent LaKeith Stanfield, who brings a relatable compassion, fear and outrage to his O’Neal, and a truly phenomenal Daniel Kaluuya, who, in every minute he’s on screen, makes the complicated and tragic story of Fred Hampton one that, indeed, should and will haunt us.