Judas And The Black Messiah – Review

Cert – 15, Run-time – 2 hours 6 minutes, Director – Shaka King

Car thief William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is brought in by the FBI and sent to join the Black Panther Party, where he begins to get close to Illinois leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

It’s clear that one day both Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are both going to win Oscars. Since their leading performances in Sorry To Bother You and Get Out respectively (Stanfield appearing in both) their careers have only gone on to greater heights. While it’s likely that Kaluuya will only get, deserved, recognition for his alleged supporting – he’s every bit as much the lead as Stanfield is – role in Shaka King’s Judas And The Black Messiah, co-written with Will Berson, by the time you read this this year’s nominations will have been announced, there’s no denying how much the two performances elevate the passionate heart of the film. 

Stanfield plays William O’Neal, a small-time car thief pretending to be an FBI agent. It’s not long until he finds himself brought in by the actual FBI, however instead of facing jail time he finds himself in an small interrogation room with Agent Roy Mitchell (a darkly quiet Jesse Plemons). O’Neal is recruited to join the Illinois division of the Black Panther Party, particularly close to their leader, the revolutionary Fred Hampton (Kaluuya). It’s here, especially when rumours of a rat begin to circulate, that his words “a badge is scarier than a gun” truly come into effect. It’s Hampton the FBI are after, holding large meetings in darkly-lit theatres, illuminated by a projection that makes the BPP leader seem like a large-scale threat. Their aim: to infiltrate them and stop the rise of a “black messiah”.

Loosely told from the perspective of a 1989 interview there’s a shaky regret in Stanfield’s voice as the older O’Neal still hasn’t come to terms with his time in the Black Panther Party. The film certainly has its elements of shock and suspense. Police attacks, raids and shootouts are often loud and tense. The gradual build-up makes such bursts punchier and make the events seem quicker, sometimes dealt in a swift blow, compared to the rest of the film, to truly get across the relentlessness of the scene and brutality of the police. 

And yet, there’s hope with the formation of movements such as the Rainbow Coalition, and the coming together of people from all sides of the black power movement – where once there seemed to be divide and tension, despite the charisma of Hampton’s words, and Kaluuya’s performance. Not to mention the bond that Hampton and O’Neal form, despite the latter continuing to keep his head down, or hunched, in slightly hidden fear he’ll be found out. However, if anything, such specific pacing and performance beats simply make for a larger degree of intensity when we arrive at some eventual fates that in the heat of the film we become unprepared for. 

Kaluuya and Stanfield lead a film as bold and powerful as their performances. While there’s hope there’s a balance of effective shock and tension that knocks the air from the viewer as they can’t help but watch in unprepared disbelief, thanks to Shaka King’s immersive pacing and detail. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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