Review: "Judas and the Black Messiah"
Judas and the Black Messiah is the second feature film from writer and director Shaka King, a completely unknown filmmaker to me who besides a few short films and some television episodes only has one other film to his name. After watching his sophomore project he is certainly a name to keep an eye on and will surely be offered many more director jobs in the future. The film he has created here feels so necessary for the time but isn’t the least bit heavy handed which is something a similar film from last year, The Trial of the Chicago 7, failed to do. For fans of Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah offers an alternative take on a similar point in history, even referencing the trial at one point. Like many I found Trial of the Chicago 7 to be somewhat fluffy and a little too on the nose, whereas King’s film presents a more grounded and violent side of the time period. It’s a great companion piece or can stand completely on its own.
LaKeith Stanfield stars as Bill O’Neal, a car thief that bumbles an easy job and is arrested by the police. Facing years in prison, O’Neal is persuaded by Agent Roy Mitchell played by Jesse Plemmons to instead join the FBI as an informant to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and get close to chairman Fred Hampton, who is masterfully played by Daniel Kaluuya. The deeper O’Neal gets into the party and the closer he gets to the people around him the harder it is to focus on the task at hand and his loyalty is tested throughout. There’s a Departed type vibe going on, at least for the first hour or so, not least because of the inclusion of Martin Sheen who plays the scheming J. Edgar Hoover intent on destroying Hampton and the fearless Panthers that surround him. The plot is intense but never loses sight of the characters. This is one of King’s strengths: his humanising of a powerful figure like Hampton. He feels like a real live character, someone we can touch. There is never a distant, looking through a lens feel that can happen so often with biopics. Very often I’ll watch a film of a historical character or event and it’s almost as if I’m turning through an informative book or watching a documentary, but never here. With this film I felt completely inside the story, with characters that I felt a part of. That is the strongest part of this film after all: the characters which are played so well by the cast.
Stanfield is his usual excellent self. I’ve now had the chance to see him in 8 films and he improves with every single one. He has a fish out of water look that he has been able to bring to several performances over the years including films like Get Out and Sorry to Bother You, and it greatly benefits him here being that throughout the film he is trying to avoid having his identity found out by the people he is betraying. Even as he is swearing his allegiance to the Panthers and demanding his innocence we see in his eyes that he never fully believes what he is saying. It would be all too easy to play a character with this sort of conflict as evil or as overly regretful for his actions but Stanfield walks the line perfectly. Every scene in which he shares information with the FBI we can see that it pains him but he knows that it’s the only option. He is being forced to choose between the people that he now considers friends and his own freedom and we feel the torture that that puts him in. Stanfield has become a truly special talent and is becoming a can’t miss actor for me.
Opposite Stanfield we have Daniel Kaluuya who is absolutely electrifying on screen - from his rousing speeches to his more intimate moments with Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson. Kaluuya had his major breakthrough in 2017 for his performance in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the film that earned him his first Oscar nomination. He’s had a relatively quiet few years since then, with some supporting roles in several high quality films but he hasn’t again reached the same level of Get Out till now. In Judas and the Black Messiah Kaluuya demands your attention. His portrayal of Fred Hampton was so mesmerising I couldn’t take my eyes off him when he appeared on screen. It’s a complete transformation and the work he put in to nail how Hampton moved and spoke is very evident. In a very competitive awards season I wouldn’t be surprised if Kaluuya earned a second Oscar nomination for his work in this film. Kaluuya was 31 during filming while Hampton was merely 21 at the time of his death, but it wasn’t an obvious issue for me and shouldn’t be for anyone who isn’t actively looking for reasons to gripe about the film.
In a film full of excellent performances from Kaluuya, Stanfield, Fishback and others, a supporting role that stood out to me was that of Algee Smith. Hot off the first season of Euphoria Smith plays Jake Winters, a younger Panther who takes violent action when one of his comrades is murdered by the police. Smith really caught my eye in Euphoria for his range and emotional vulnerability and he was able to bring that same emotion to this film in one of its most powerful and dramatic moments.
It’s a film that is primarily performance driven but the filmmaking is more than just a vessel for strong performances. There is a raw energy to many scenes, particularly those featuring Kaluuya or the Panthers. You feel these characters' pain and their struggle, all while the FBI sits back and cracks jokes about who they’re plotting to kill next. Judas and the Black Messiah is in theaters and is available to watch on HBOMax until March 14th. Hopefully you’ll get as much out of it as I did and if you have any thoughts you’d like to share with me you can always hit one of those buttons down below to talk with me directly on social media.