The best films can serve as a vessel. A vessel to another time and another place. A time capsule to an era misunderstood or unknown. And in those two hours audiences can be let in on truths that can be uplifting but also earth shattering. Judas and the Black Messiah is a true cinematic accomplishment in that it teaches so much while carrying so much emotional weight. It is exhilarating, fascinating, captivating, and at most, heartbreaking.

The film premiered Monday night at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of its release on HBO Max February 12. Although it’s unfortunate it wasn’t able to be screened in a packed Utah theater, it might be the best thing. The audiences were able to go on this emotional journey from the comfort of their own home and allowed them to sit and ponder the film’s magnitude as the final scene went to black. The final few minutes is as shocking and emotionally jarring as any film this year and it leaves an impact felt long after the roll of the credits.

Shaka King (Newlyweeds) masterfully directs Judas and the Black Messiah which tells the true story of revolutionary Black Panther leader Fred Hampton played by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and his relationship with William O’Neal portrayed by LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta). The film takes place at the height of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement in Chicago. Hampton, at just the age of 21, is the Chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party. He has become an incredibly influential and outspoken leader in the Chicago community. His speeches and ability to unite all Chicago citizens, regardless of color, to mobilize and create social change have gained him national attention and not all the good kind. The FBI declares him a national threat and begins to go through several measures to stop his advocacy. One of those measures introduces us to William O’Neal. And from there on our story starts and we get a Civil Rights history film meets The Departed.

The pace, feel, and, energy of the film is relentless and its 120-minute run time flies by. King masterfully delivers a history lesson by introducing you to incredible figures, some from our history books, and some we have never heard of. He captures a time of unrest and brings the ’60s to life in a way that is beautiful, but haunting. Every scene builds to the next and the presence of impending doom leaves the audience feeling helpless and out of control.

But it’s the words and the people saying them that make Judas a film that will live long past 2021. Kaluuya embodies everything about Hampton. From the charming sophistication of a man wanting more from the world to his unbelievable presence in his rally speeches. The “I am a Revolutionary” speech is the most powerful, exhilarating scene of the past year. Kaluuya said King handed him the entire Black Panther reading curriculum and Kaluuya spent months researching Hampton’s speech patterns and fully immersing himself in Hampton’s life, studies, and teachings. That work pays off as Kaluuya’s best performance of his career. A performance that will stack right up to Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X, and David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, two other immortal performances of civil rights leaders. An Oscar nomination is about as guaranteed of anything to come out of Sundance, and a win would be well deserved.

But it is the performance of Stanfield as O’Neal that leaves the biggest impact. Without giving too much away, Stanfield’s character and objective is among one of the most complex in recent memory. Stanfield brings to life someone tasked with a job to turn his back on his entire race, to stand in the way of incredible change, and to report to the enemy of the people in which he spends every day with. You starting to see why this film is called JUDAS and the Black Messiah yet? O’Neal is the villain in this movie. Everything he is tasked with doing the audience disagrees with. But yet, Stanfield’s performance keeps you from hating his guts, instead you connect with him; you want what’s best for him and you want him to be OK. Even though you know what his end game is. While Kaluuya’s performance jumps off the screen, Stanfield’s is so methodical, multi-layered, and honestly heartbreaking. I don’t know who else could have pulled it off.

The supporting cast is just as strong. Dominique Fishback is an incredible discovery, playing Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s partner. Fishback brings an emotional grounding to Kaluuya’s performance and helps establish Hampton as a vulnerable human and not the larger than life character we see while speaking to the masses. Jesse Plemons plays FBI agent Roy Mitchell, who works alongside O’Neal. In other hands Mitchell would have been played as a manipulative caricature, but like Stanfield, Plemons brings a level of complexity and range to a role that could have so easily been two-dimensional.

Judas and the Black Messiah is the most important film of the year, and it just so happens to be the best movie of the year. From the opening frame until the last the film reinvents how a historical drama can be told. It never stops feeling important and fresh. It checks nearly every box. Incredible, moving script. Inventive, imaginary score. Revolutionary performances. Emotional gut punch. It’s a movie that rings so timely and important to now.

The only disappointing thing about this film is the truth and lesson it is teaching. One that is hard to watch and while unsettling to the audience to see, Director King uses Judas to be a reminder of what little we have learned. The murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr have been taught in schools and were so fresh at the time that this film takes place. Those men lost their lives fighting a war that shouldn’t even exist. The fight for equality is over something that should never be fought for. There is no world where people should be treated differently based on their race, religion, or ethnicity, but yet we all exist in one today. The beliefs of these men caused them to lose their lives. A price that they were willing to give, but one that should have never been asked to be paid. Judas and the Black Messiah is another chronicle of a man that was willing to give up everything to leave this world a better place. That’s why the biggest reason this film broke my heart is knowing that people today are still fighting for what Malcolm, Martin and Hampton were. That while there has been some change, there still isn’t enough. Judas and the Black Messiah is an incredible history lesson, but it is also is an alarm. A wake-up call to the injustice of our pasts, but the vision of our future. That the battle is far from done.

Coming Soon to the UK

Judas and the Black Messiah
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Nathan McVay
Nathan is one of HeyUGuys' US correspondents and loves movies. You'll find him at Sundance Film Festival on an annual basis watching and reviewing movies before most others.
judas-and-the-black-messiah-reviewJudas and the Black Messiah is a true cinematic accomplishment in that it teaches so much while carrying so much emotional weight. It is exhilarating, fascinating, captivating, and at most, heartbreaking. May well be the best film of 2021.