Judas and the Black Messiah…Best Picture 2021?
Now would normally be the time when film buffs would be scrambling to squeeze in those last few flicks that made the Academy Awards nominations list. But as people keep saying, “we live in unusual times.” Due to COVID-19, this year’s Oscars have been postponed from February 28 to April 25, only the third time in the history of the awards that the ceremony has been delayed. But that doesn’t mean the hype hasn’t begun. Eyes have already turned to the precursors like the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards to try to predict who will be nominated for and ultimately win those coveted golden trophies.
One of the most exciting possibilities is the powerful and tragic story of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. Directed by Shaka King and written by King as well, in collaboration with Will Berson, Judas and the Black Messiah will premiere at the Sundance film festival on February 1, but won’t reach mainstream audiences in the U.S. until February 12 when it will be simultaneously released on HBO Max and in theaters.
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of the FBI’s attempts to undermine the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. William O’Neal, a petty criminal recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Panther organization, quickly works his way up the ranks of the Illinois chapter to become its Security Director and Hampton’s bodyguard. Tensions arise when members become suspicious of a spy in their midst. The film culminates when O”Neal must face the tragic outcomes of his actions and the stunning abuses of power he witnesses.
Lakeith Stanfield, most notable for his recent roles as Lt. Elliott in Knives Out and as activist Jimmy Lee Jackson in Selma, plays O’Neal who strikes a deal with authorities to save himself but finds he is in way over his head as he betrays his race and the people he befriends. Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out fame plays charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, Fred Hampton, and his fiercely intense performance is already being likened to Denzel Washington in Malcolm X..
Other notables round out the cast, including Jesse Plemmons, who you might remember as the understated sociopath Todd in Breaking Bad, and Martin Sheen, our favorite denizen of The West Wing. Plemmons plays FBI agent Roy Mitchell who turns O’Neal into an informant, while Sheen takes on larger-than-life figure, J. Edgar Hoover.
The film resonates with current audiences as it speaks to the struggles of minority populations with authorities who too often abuse power, and in this film, get ready! Kaluuya said of his experience in the role, “After the murder of George Floyd and the reaction to that, I was like, ‘Oh wow…this film and these people articulate how people are feeling right now’.” His co-star, Stanfield added, “The story itself has always been a beautiful story to me and one that I wanted to tell… talking about the heroes that trailblazed the way to where we are at.”
Early reactions suggest that the story and the portrayals are having a huge impact on Academy Award analysts. Kaluuya is a frontrunner for a Best Supporting Actor. Stanfield is an outlier for Best Actor for his role as O’Neal, and Dominique Fishback has a shot at Best Supporting actress for her portrayal of Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Jonson. Offcamera, Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt is likely to get a nod for Best Cinematographer and Shaka King has a chance at a Best Director nomination. Finally, Grammy Award winner, H.E.R. is a favorite for Best Original Song for “Fight For You” written by H.E.R., Dernst Emile II, and Tiara Thomas.
As for Best Picture, Judas and the Black Messiah has some stiff competition. This has been a year in which the Black experience has been at the fore, both on and off the screen. Other Oscar hopefuls include The Trial of the Chicago 7, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, and Da 5 Bloods. But rather than argue who will win out, let’s celebrate the richness of the powerful African-American producers, directors, writers, and actors who’ve made this a year to remember.