Bill O’Neal, portrayed by LaKeith Stanfield, is a skilled car thief, swindler and former kidnapper who wants no part of heading back to prison during 1968 in Judas and the Black Messiah. O' Neal thinks he has come up with the perfect rouse to wrestle expensive cars away from their unsuspecting owners. By producing a fake FBI badge he is able to seize cars from them before they even know they have been duped.
A routine traffic stop leads to a life-changing proposition which would consume him for the rest of his life. O'Neal stares down the prospect of spending the next seven years in prison for passing himself off as an FBI agent -- or an alternative that allows him to return home without prosecution provided he help the real FBI infiltrate the Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party by becoming part of their organization.
Meanwhile, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) is stewing about the Black Panther Party and is convinced it is a terrorist organization that posts an existential threat to America and the world. He has started a secret agency tasked with putting an end to the Black Panther Party by eliminating key players and rising stars he refers to as “Black Messiahs.”
Hoover is obsessed with Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) from the Illinois chapter of the movement. Hampton, known for rousing speeches and a vision for rising up against tyranny, repeatedly lashes out against law enforcement and possesses a deep hatred for police.
O’Neal finds himself embedded in the organization and tasked by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to get close to Hampton and provide intelligence, including Hampton’s plans, quirks and exact location at any moment. Along the way, Hampton becomes enamored of Debra Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who becomes his ardent supporter and later pregnant with his child.
Hoover turns up the heat on Mitchell who finds himself believing in the Black Panther’s cause while also believing Hampton and his followers to be domestic terrorists. Soon Hampton finds himself back in prison on a trumped-up charge after he stuffed $71 worth of ice cream treats he shoplifted for local children. Hoover then tells Mitchell that he doesn’t want Hampton to become a martyr while in prison and then emboldening others to take up his cause. He directs the Special Agent to use O’Neal more creatively in order to foil Hampton upon his release.
LaKeith Stanfield stands out for approaching O’Neal as someone with unfinished business. Stanfield feels the film wouldn’t have worked without the involvement of screenwriters Will Berson and Shaka King, who together crafted a courageous film.
I agree with Stanfield about the need out there “to see more things like this—more pieces that can move people, projects and material that can help me, and others, grow.”
Kaluuya delivers a riveting performance as Hampton and is bound to garner serious award consideration. Jesse Plemons bares startling resemblance to Matt Damon. He appears to be doing an impression of the actor straight from his swagger down to his style and delivery of lines.
Writer/director King seems right to believe that Judas and the Black Messiah succeeds because she snagged every actor she wanted to work with. “It never happens,” she states. “I wrote the movie for LaKeith. I wrote the movie for Daniel, Jesse and Dominique. Literally, very first pre-draft—I went I want him, I want him, I want him, I want her. That’s a rarity. And they were all meant to play these roles.”
(Available on HBO Max and rated “R” by MPAA.)