Daniel Kaluuya LaKeith Stanfield Judas and the Black Messiah

Daniel Kaluuya won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar Sunday for Judas and the Black Messiah, beating his co-star LaKeith Stanfield, among others. Kaluuya paid tribute to Stanfield in his emotional acceptance speech, saying: “I share this honor with the gift that is LaKeith Stanfield.”

But you can’t blame viewers who wondered why neither man was nominated for Best Actor.

Stanfield, after all, plays the Judas of Judas and the Black Messiah: FBI mole Bill O’Neal. And Kaluuya plays the Black Messiah: Black Panther icon Fred Hampton.

Wasn’t one of the titular characters the lead? And shouldn’t the lead perhaps have been nominated for Best Actor?

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Kaluuya and Stanfield get about the same amount of screen time (roughly 50 minutes for Stanfield and 46 minutes for Kaluuya, according to the New York Times). Hampton is the hero, and O’Neal the complicated, conflicted villain.

Movies traditionally make the hero the lead, and it is Hampton, not O’Neal, who gives a triumphant, mesmerizing speech at a key moment of the film, and who we sympathize with the most. He is presented as a Messianic visionary willing to sacrifice himself for a greater movement.

But O’Neal’s POV arguably makes him the lead, because both O’Neal and we, the audience, know something that Hampton doesn’t: O’Neal has infiltrated the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers to betray their Messiah, as Judas betrayed Jesus Christ in the New Testament for 30 pieces of silver.

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The way that the Oscar nominations resolved the question of whether Lakeith Stanfield or Daniel Kaluuya is the lead recalls another Biblical figure, and not in a good way.

Remember King Solomon? When presented a baby and two women who both claimed to be the child’s mother, Solomon ruled that the baby should be split in half. This would mean, in effect, that no one would get the baby.

But Solomon’s decision proved to be an effective one, because it inspired one woman to give up her claim to the child, so that the baby would avoid harm. This woman, of course, was the child’s true mother.

The Academy’s handling of the Stanfield/Kaluuya debate is less elegant. Oscar voters didn’t nominate either man for Best Actor, so neither actor gets the small, gold baby in that category.

But Oscar voters did nominate both Stanfield and Kaluuya in the Best Supporting category, creating the implausible implication that neither the Judas nor the Black Messiah is the lead character in Judas and the Black Messiah.

This wasn’t intentional. Nominees in the the acting categories come from actors in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and in this case both Kaluuya and Stanfield each got enough votes to be nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category, but not for Best Actor.

As Stanfield put it on Instagram, after the nominations were announced: ““I’m confused too but fuck it lmao.”

At least one of the actors, Kaluuya, got the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

“Thank you God. Thank you God. I can’t be here without your guidance and your protection,” he said at the start of the speech, in which he also praised the man he played, Fred Hampton: “How blessed we are that we lived in a lifetime when he existed.”

Who is the lead in Judas and the Black Messiah? Why are Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya both up for the best supporting actor Oscar?

Daniel Kaluuya, left, and LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah

He said of the Black Panther Party: “They taught me how to love myself.”

Studios are known to engage in category shenanigans to maximize their Oscar chances, sometimes pushing an actor for whatever category seems the least competitive. But that didn’t happen with Judas and the Black Messiah.

Warner Bros.’ For Your Consideration site suggested LaKeith Stanfield in the Best Actor category, and Daniel Kaluuya and Jesse Plemons, who plays O’Neal’s FBI manipulator, in the Best Supporting Actor category. (Plemons didn’t make it.)

Besides the two supporting actor nods for Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah was nominated for four other Oscars for Best Picture, Best Original Song (H.E.R., D’Mile, Tiara Thomas), Best Original Screenplay (Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenneth and Keith Lucas) and Best Cinematography (Sean Bobbitt).

Judas and the Black Messiah is now in theaters.

Main image: Daniel Kaluuya accepting his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.