One of the big surprises of the 2021 Oscar nominations was the success of Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s film about Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), a leader in the Black Panther Party, and his betrayal at the hands of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).
As you can probably guess from that cursory plot summary, O’Neal is the Judas and Hampton the Black Messiah of the film’s title. So when both Kaluuya and Stanfield were nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, it necessarily prompted some confusion as to who, exactly, they were supposed to be supporting.
To my mind, Stanfield is clearly the film’s lead. The movie stays focused on him throughout, and it’s mostly about O’Neal’s emotional journey and his thought processes as he makes the decisions that lead to Hampton’s death. But one could also argue that Kaluuya is the lead, as he plays a character who is effortlessly magnetic and who drives much of the story’s action (the usual role of a protagonist in a film). Plus, Hampton is the better-known historical figure.
And in similar cases throughout Oscar history — where an acclaimed film has a major character, arguably the film’s protagonist, who observes a famous historical figure — the actor playing the famous historical figure has usually been considered for Lead Actor, while the “observer” ends up in Supporting. In 2007, for instance, James McAvoy was the actor with the most screen time in The Last King of Scotland, but the Lead Actor nomination (and win) went to Forest Whitaker for playing Idi Amin. (McAvoy was unnominated.) And 2008’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford spends most of its time with Ford (played by Casey Affleck), even though James (Brad Pitt) is a far better-known historical figure. Nevertheless, Affleck got a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars. (Pitt was unnominated.)
But either Kaluuya or Stanfield must be the lead of Judas and the Black Messiah, right? How could they both possibly end up in the Supporting Actor race? Surely someone should have stopped this from happening!
There’s no way to know exactly what happened, because the Oscars keep their vote totals secret. But I think I have a best guess as to how we got here.