February 1, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Virtual Sundance Review: “Judas and the Black Messiah”


JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (Warners/HBO Max – February 12):  The title refers to the FBI informant Bill O’Neal (played here by LaKeith Stanfield) and the Illinois Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).  Although Hampton was only 21 years old, he was so charismatic and successful–he had put together a local coalition that not only included Latinos but right-wing urban poor–that he was a particular target of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and by his orders, the FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons).  Director Shaka King, working from a script he wrote with Will Berson (story also credited to Keith and Kenneth Lucas), lucidly and powerfully sets out the situation, detailing both the Black Panther organization’s internal issues and the mounting disregard for the rule of law by the authorities.  King directs with the drive of a crime thriller, reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City and the 1970s films of Costa-Gavras, backed by gritty photography by Sean Bobbitt (Steve McQueen’s usual cinematographer) and sharp editing by Kristan Sprague.  The lead performances couldn’t be better.  Kaluuya conveys both Hampton’s enormous ability to rouse audiences and the humanity behind his public persona, and Stanfield captures O’Neal’s sweaty furtiveness, as the deceptively low-key FBI agent lures him deeper and deeper into a moral abyss.  The script has some odd limitations, in that we get a great deal of Hampton’s life through his marriage to Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), but O’Neal’s character is presented only in relation to his betrayal.  (In the future, stories like this will more likely be streaming limited series rather than squeezed into 2-hour films, giving them more room to breathe.)  It’s unfortunate that Judas and the Black Messiah, in telling events that took place 50 years ago, is still so topical, but as we need to see such stories, this one is particularly worthy.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."