One good thing about the year 2021 in movies is that we might get two Oscar seasons. Usually, the deadline to qualify for a year's Oscar race is the end of the calendar year, so December is often loaded with awards-chasers. But because there were so many releases pushed back in 2020, the Academy has decided to extend the deadline two months, so last-minute Oscar bait is actually opening now, in February 2021. Hopefully the system can be restored by the end of the year, meaning that we'll get one margin of Oscar eligibility that lasts fourteen months followed by one that lasts ten months. "Judas and the Black Messiah" is a film that is shrewdly positioning its release date at the end of the fourteen-month frame. And it is wise to do so, because I can see this film doing very well in the Oscar race.
The film follows the Black Panther movement in Chicago in the late 1960's. Illinois State Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is spouting the kind of fiery rhetoric that could lead to social and political upheaval. What he wants is nothing short of a revolution. This naturally freaks out those dedicated to maintaining the status quo, like the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in yet another onscreen depiction of Hoover that involves horrendous makeup). Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons) taps lowlife car thief William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) to infiltrate Hampton's circle and serve as an informant in return for dropping some criminal charges. Technically the betrayer O'Neal is the main character of the film, much like how the antagonist Salieri is the main character in "Amadeus," minus the whole "insane jealousy" angle.
Hampton is under no delusion that he's not under constant surveillance or that his life isn't constantly in danger. He knows he'll probably be assassinated like fellow leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But he wants to make a difference while he can, setting up educational programs for disadvantaged children and organizing warring gangs into the Rainbow Coalition. When his friends sense that his days are numbered, they give him some money to flee the country, but he turns it over to a comrade, telling him to start a health clinic. This is much to the chagrin of his pregnant girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback), who worries that Hampton is acting without considering the consequences to his unborn child.
O'Neal is very much taken with the charismatic Hampton, and as a fellow African American, agrees with much of what he says about white oppression. But Mitchell warns him that Hampton's way is not one of peace, and it can only end badly. Also, he's still got those charges to work off. The time for him to play Judas to Hampton's Black Messiah is nigh. O'Neal is so affected by the role he has to play that he's practically crying when he offers Hampton a tainted drink. A barely-conscious Hampton is later assassinated (sorry if that's a spoiler for a film whose very title equates Hampton with the most famous martyr in history) in a manner sure to draw comparisons to the domestic murder of Breonna Taylor.
At the heart of "Judas and the Black Messiah" is the fully-dedicated Kaluuya performance, virtually a lock for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, if not the win. I could see Fishback slipping into the Best Supporting Actress race as well, and even the movie for Best Picture. I haven't seen many of the direct-to-streaming awards contenders, so I don't know where this film falls in relation to them, but this is certainly a film that screams "award-worthy." In fact, it's better than any film released in the year 2020 that I reviewed. And it's only February. I always recommend seeing movies in theaters for the sake of supporting theaters, but now there's a movie that's worth going out of your way to see.
"Judas and the Black Messiah" is playing in theaters and available for streaming on HBO Max. The film is rated R for violence and pervasive language. Its running time is 126 minutes.