There are moments in ‘Judas and The Black Messiah’ where Lakeith Stanfield looks like he might tear at the seams. He plays William O’Neal, the infamous real-life FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panthers and gave information that leads to the death of charismatic revolutionary Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Stanfield plays O’Neal with an intoxicating mix of feigned bravado, slick cynicism, and palpable regret. He looks at once terrified and in some ways gratified by his double-agent status, adding thrilling complexity to a character history remembers as a villain.
The film itself is a mix of pugnacious filmmaking – rancorous and full of tense near-melees – and romantic, dimly lit desire. It stays true to the tenor of the time, but always with an eye toward spectacle and heightened emotion.
Kaluuya anchors ‘Messiah’ with a performance that’s at once reverential and vexing, delivering his lines with a sort-of punch drunk certainty, a cadence and clarity on par with Hampton himself. Dominique Fishback – a rising star if there ever was one – plays Deborah Johnson, a savvy leader of the movement and Hampton’s partner. She’s magnetic in this role, with eyes that could pierce sheetrock and the assuredness of actors much older than she.
While the film inevitably marches to its brutal denouement, director Shaka King makes sure one message is clear: you can kill people, but you can’t kill ideas. We always lurch toward progress.
I virtually sat down with Stanfield to talk about the film’s potential impact, the dark corners of O’Neal’s mind and the universality of Black stories.
Also, be sure to check out the film’s soundtrack!