**** out of ****
(for violence and pervasive language)
Released: February 12, 2021, in theaters and on HBO Max
Runtime: 126 minutes
Directed by: Shaka King
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrel Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery
Playing in theaters and on HBO Max
Over the past year, several films have resonated in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Judas and the Black Messiah transcends them all.
This Civil Rights era biopic also transcends the politics of our polarized present. Director Shaka King’s career-making powerhouse speaks to this moment without being a woke slave to it, confronting a tragic injustice of systemic racism (involving a self-proclaimed revolutionary, no less) without soapboxing the tenets of Critical Race Theory.
And so, instead of marginalizing itself as some leftist radical homily, Judas and the Black Messiah works like a provocative but productive trigger, sparking exactly the kind of race conversation we should be having. It’s films (and filmmakers) like these that help us when our politics (and politicians) fail us.
Urgent and immediate, Judas and the Black Messiah is a riveting tour de force, arresting in its pace and largely-unknown details while thought-provoking in its turns and their implications. Fueled by a tag-team tone of visceral intensity and patient character intimacy, Shaka King’s visionary effort is a work of pure cinema.
That dual tone could also describe the central performances by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. As (respectively) Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and criminal-turned-FBI informant William O’Neal, these two polar opposite turns are equally potent examples of what can epitomize an actor’s showcase.
Based on the late-1960s true story of the FBI leveraging O’Neal to rat out Hampton and his Black Panther Illinois chapter from the inside, Judas and the Black Messiah feels part Scorsese and part Lumet, an energized crime drama driven by a charismatic yet potentially-volatile figure, while also being a contemplative, damning portrait about the corrosive underbelly of American institutions.
And like both of those New Hollywood legends, Shaka King takes no voyeuristic pleasure in the rot he exposes, nor does his aesthetic bravado undercut his film’s thematic rectitude. Genre is used for a purpose, not as a slick package.
Daniel Kaluuya is absolutely magnetic as Fred Hampton, intensely method without trying to calculate an Oscar clip. It’s a complete and total transformation for this low-key Brit, channeling Hampton’s rhetorical fury while also revealing the human beneath the icon, even as King’s script provides the nuance of Hampton’s strategic wisdom.
If Hampton is the figure of moral conviction, then LaKeith Stanfield’s William O’Neal is the compromised convict, forced into a situation by an FBI he can’t trust. He’s as duplicitous and torn as Hampton is clear-eyed and resolute. As the demands mount for O’Neal, the trap being set for is as much for him as Hampton. It slowly eats him alive, and Stanfield incarnates that arc.
Meanwhile, in two superb supporting turns, Jesse Plemons is the FBI handler who coldly, deceptively turns the screws on O’Neal, and Dominique Fishback is heartbreaking yet inspiring as the educated Black Panther volunteer turned Hampton partner and lover, struggling to reconcile the longing for family while following through on the fight they’ve all committed themselves to.
To an actor, no one ever plays to the camera in this ensemble, truly oblivious of its presence. King’s camera reciprocates, never trying to mythologize them. Ambitious and sweeping yet never contrived, Judas and the Black Messiah is artful but honest.
And for anyone who doubts its point-of-view, or wonders if Shaka King’s perspective is too biased or skewed, the haunting coda confirms the veracity of what we’ve just seen, regardless of how dramatized it may inevitably be.
One of the increasingly obnoxious aspects of Peak TV and how it has influenced the exploration of topical themes in feature films is the varying degrees to which self-import seeps through. Even sincere efforts can succumb to virtue-signaling in subtle ways. If a filmmaker can somehow avoid that while producing a biopic striving for relevant modern-day parallels, they’ve made a movie with integrity.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a movie with integrity.