by Nick L’Barrow
Coming hot of its critically praised premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Judas and the Black Messiah is another one of the titles currently on Warner Bros. list of simultaneous theatrical and HBOMax streaming releases in the United States (with a cinema release March 11 for Australia)
From director Shaka King, Judas interconnects the stories of two men on seemingly different sides of the civil rights movement in 1960s Chicago. The first man being Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out and Black Mirror), the deputy chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The second, William ‘Bill’ O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield, Get Out and Knives Out), a criminal informant for the FBI who is sent undercover into the Black Panther Party to get close with Hampton and leak information that will ultimately dismantle Hampton’s group. However, after forming a close relationship with Hampton after his infiltration, O’Neal becomes conflicted between the stronghold the FBI have over him and the empowering message of freedom being preached to the masses by his new acquaintance.
It may come as no surprise for those who read into the biblical foreshadowing of this film’s title (also with the story being based on true events) that the film is predominately a slow build up to the eventual betrayal of the Black Messiah (Hampton) by his follower Judas (O’Neal). And while this is the crux of the film’s plot, early on the script introduces many side characters in order to build up the backgrounds for the two leads. At times, certain time frames or events can feel like they move along too quickly, leaving a sense of confusion as to how far into the story the film is. However, Judas’ second act finds more solid footing in building the relationship between Hampton and O’Neal and still utilises the supporting characters as to not have them feel like an unnecessary addition to the film. It does add to the runtime and at points halt the pacing slightly compared to some incredibly tense and powerful moments later in the movie, but it never comes across as detrimental to the overall experience.
The incredibly tense moments previously mentioned whether they are standoff style shootouts between the Panthers and police, or passionate, powerful speeches battle cried from Hampton to his followers, are expertly helmed by King’s direction. Every shot has a strong purpose in drawing the audience’s attention with fantastic imagery, cinematography and editing. Even in the films earlier, clunkier storytelling moments, the editing still feels crisp and concise. King has constructed a technically awesome viewing experience while also balancing the powerful moments that a film of this subject matter needs to get its social message across. And with Judas only being King’s second feature film (and first major studio release), makes his name one to watch closely for in future projects.
The anchor of Judas and the Black Messiah however is the lead performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield. Kaluuya fully encapsulates the voice and embodies the presence of Fred Hampton with such powerful conviction that every line of dialogue from his mouth seems perfectly crafted. He is captivating every moment he is on screen and amazingly balances the intensity of a passionate speech about freedom or a tender, loving moment alone with his pregnant partner. There two or three scenes in Judas for Kaluuya that are the “Oscar moment” and a nomination seems almost like a shoe-in at this point.
Juxtaposing Kaluuya’s bold performance and being almost overlooked currently by other critics is LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal. In multiple scenes throughout, Stanfield is required to portray the confidence of the O’Neal that is an undercover Black Panther with the immense anxiety of O’Neal the FBI informant, and Stanfield does this with such precision that it almost seems too easy. Stanfield has an acting energy about him that radiates complete surrender to his characters and that shows many times in this movie. The amount of sympathy he also creates for a character that is ultimately a completely controlled puppet for the FBI and the inner turmoil of being a black man reinforcing the oppression of his race is also award worthy. Both performances are the literal definition of powerhouse.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a film that even though this story has been told before in many other ways, still manages to signify the importance of its cultural message through concise and purposeful filmmaking from director Shaka King and performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield that should be spoken about with the utmost praise come awards season.
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