'Judas And The Black Messiah' Review: Fantastic Performances Bolster This Taut Drama [Sundance 2021]

"A badge is scarier than a gun." So says William O'Neal, a Black man who sits in an interrogation room, bloodied and bruised. It's the 1960s, and O'Neal has just been caught trying to boost a car while impersonating an FBI agent – and the crime could spell the end of his life as he knows it. His words ring true – he knows he doesn't need to pull a weapon to frighten African Americans into submission; the threat of a lawman with unchecked power is far more terrifying. O'Neal's attempt at car robbery sets him on a path towards destruction. He stays out of prison – but his freedom is gone.

Lakeith Stanfield plays O'Neal in Judas and the Black Messiah, and his performance is the type of stunning, emotionally devastating work that has people talking for years to come. Stanfield is a powerhouse performer, and his work as tormented, scheming, off-kilter O'Neal is destined to be hailed as something special. Every scene with the actor burns up the screen as he balances a cacophony of emotions – O'Neal is always lying, always plotting, always trying to stay ahead, because his life depends on it. He's doing what he has to do to survive – but at what cost? Not just to himself, but to those around him?

With his options severely limited, O'Neal is given a choice by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – he can either go to jail for impersonating a fed, or he can become an informant. And not just any informant. O'Neal is tasked with infiltrating the Black Panther Party in Chicago, and getting close to its chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). And here lies Judas and the Black Messiah's strength – it doesn't just have one great, towering performance – it has two. Kaluuya radiates charisma and power as Hampton, a man whose voice is a serious threat as far as the FBI is concerned.

And yet...there's something a tiny bit off here. Stanfield and Kaluuya are unquestionably phenomenal in their respective roles, but the script doesn't seem entirely confident in balancing its story between the two. Hampton in particular feels far too enigmatic – we know he's powerful because the movie keeps telling us so, and we get glimpses of the good Hampton and the Black Panthers are doing for their community. But as stellar as his performance might be, Kaluuya can't quite penetrate the way the character is written here. It feels at times like we never truly get to know who Fred Hampton is.

Perhaps that's a feature and not a bug. Because while there are several scenes that focus on Hampton when he's not around O'Neal, this is really a world seen through O'Neal's frantic, panicky eyes. Does he believe in the Black Panther movement? It's unclear. He clearly gets swept up in Hampton's words, and he grows more and more conflicted when he's forced to put Hampton and the Panthers in precarious spots. But he's always an outsider. Always someone who is playing a part.

Stanfield really is the driving force behind the film. No matter how many show-stopping scenes Kaluuya gets – scenes where he delivers rousing speeches that rile up crowds and have them ready to follow him into hell – it's Stanfield's troubled, frazzled O'Neal who commands the screen and drives everything forward, sometimes with terrible results. Occasional scenes where Hampton's personal life is presented via his relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), whom he meets during one of his speeches at the start of the film, are sweet, but they still don't quite let us into Hampton's inner world.

But this is primarily O'Neal's story and the story of his deceptions. Judas and the Black Messiah has a modicum of sympathy for O'Neal, or at least empathy – yes, his actions amount to putting a bullseye right on Hampton's back, but the film doesn't flinch away from presenting the FBI and the United States government as the truly insidious force here; the unstoppable machine that propelled O'Neal towards his terrible goals.

O'Neal is pushed further and further towards betrayal by his handler Mitchell, and Plemons excels at giving the character the perfect amount of banal menace. There are moments where even Mitchell seems slightly taken aback, even alarmed, by the FBI's actions – but he's not about to take a stand against them. Especially when the orders for those actions come right from the top, in the form of J. Edgar Hoover, played by Martin Sheen buried under appropriately ghoulish, unsettling make-up; make-up that makes Hoover look like Nosferatu's long-lost cousin.

Director Shaka King stages all of this with a deft hand. The filmmaker creates a series of memorable set pieces here, from a tense shoot-out between the Black Panthers and the police to the unbearably nerve-wracking finale set in Hampton's apartment. Sean Bobbitt's cinematography captures it all with a sharp color palette that recalls a slightly faded photograph that feels appropriate to the time period. All of the elements on display here work exceedingly well at bringing us into the world of the film, but that curious disconnect remains. There's are undeniably great moments in Judas and the Black Messiah, but one can't help but think the movie needed to push itself just a little bit further. But perhaps the raw power radiating off the screen via the performances is enough.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10