Awards season is extending longer and later than usual this year, and “Judas and the Black Messiah” is looking to make a few appearances. The story of one of the Black Panther party’s most prominent leaders and his betrayal has already garnered two Golden Globe nominations, one for Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Fred Hampton and one for its original song “Fight for You.” Oscar nominations have yet to be announced, but I am expecting and hoping for Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, and especially LaKeith Stanfield to get nominations for their performances and maybe nominations in the best picture and best director categories.
As the title suggests, the movie focuses on FBI informant Bill O’Neal’s (LaKeith Stanfield) betrayal of the head of the Chicago Black Panther chapter Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). This makes the film what can best be categorized as a two-hander biopic, splitting its attention evenly between the two men. The audience gets to see the struggle of O’Neal as he is caught between the pressure from the FBI and his growing allegiance to the Panthers, while also spending a lot of time with Hampton’s dedication to his movement and what his movement entails.
However, there is also a lot of attention given to Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Her relationship with Hampton gives voice to her historical counterpart and highlights an aspect of revolution that gets sidelined in nearly every other story, factual or fictional, about any kind of revolutionary movement.
The choice to make this movie a two-hander makes it much more compelling than most other biopics. Were this a biopic about just Fred Hampton, his ultimate betrayal and death likely would have been included in a seemingly random climax (as in something like “Selena”), with O’Neal being introduced near the end of the movie. Centering the story around both Hampton and O’Neal allows for the movie to really allow the audience to spend time with both of them as fully realized human beings rather than getting caught up in showing a highlight reel of the subject’s life like many biopics do. Most importantly, the dual-protagonist set-up allows the movie to give a more complete picture of the Black Panther movement and the full impact, both personal and political, of O’Neal’s ultimate betrayal of Hampton.
Both the film’s greatest strengths and weaknesses lie in how it uses its second act. Between the setup of O’Neal being recruited by the FBI and Hampton’s eventual death, most of the scenes are dedicated to the more general actions of the Panthers. While there is some connective tissue between these scenes, there is not a neat causal plot that runs through the middle of the film. Despite this, the film never drags and maintains a lot of tension throughout. These scenes also do an excellent job of showing the goals and actions of the Panthers, the obstacles they encounter, and some of the losses they sustain. One particularly notable scene features Hampton giving a personal visit to the mother of a Panther who is killed in a police shootout.
On the whole, I definitely recommend watching this. It shows an important piece of history with a lot of context while still being engaging to watch. As mentioned, the performances from the lead roles are outstanding. If you are not a fan of historical or biographical movies, I can’t promise that you’ll like it, but it avoids most of the common limitations and pitfalls unique to nonfictional stories. If you’re interested, catch it now while it’s still on HBO Max.