HomeMovies'Judas and the Black Messiah' is a Devastating Showcase for Kaluuya

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is a Devastating Showcase for Kaluuya

Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah
Photo Credit: Participant Media/Warner Media

Hot off its world premiere at Sundance and garnering some great awards season buzz, the newest film from writer-director Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah, is a thrilling and energized depiction of historical revolution and betrayal.

The film depicts the turmoil that brewed within the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party during the 1960s, when FBI informant, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), leaked information to the FBI that led to the assassination of chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). The style that King utilizes for the film’s narrative and visual styles evokes a sort of documentary feel. He splices in archival footage from the time and includes moments where we cut to Stanfield portraying an older O’Neal in an interview conducted after the events of the film took place. He also shrinks the aspect ratio, creating a tighter frame and adds a grainer, slightly paler filter to evoke the time period. All of this comes together to give wide scope to one of the most stunning and horrific betrayals in American history.

Oddly enough, though, Kaluuya’s performance as Hampton is really what makes this film feel like it’s taking you back in time, as he masterfully embodies the revolutionary spirit and swift conviction of the iconic civil rights leader. Whenever he’s in frame, Kaluuya’s performance just has this magnetic pull, thanks to his sermon-like delivery and confident screen presence. Hampton was the kind of speaker who inspired and touched those around him because he spoke with such strength and sincerity. He was someone who genuinely wanted to give the people power, not just the black community, but everyone who suffers from injustice from the police. Although his enemies saw him as a radical, he was more of a community leader and it’s great that both Kaluuya’s performance and the film’s writing reflect this.

When we initially meet Hampton, he’s already got a reputation. Many see him as a revolutionary figure and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) is already labeling him as a domestic terrorist. The film showcases him as more than these things, though, as we see him as a community unifier. Not only is he creating breakfast events to ensure that children in the surrounding area don’t go to school hungry and educating his comrades on the cause they fight for, but he’s bringing together street gangs and other coalitions to form a multiracial alliance to unite all people. King does an excellent job showing Hampton’s impact outside big speeches and Hoover obsessing over him and Kaluuya elevates these moments through his display of Hampton’s support of his brothers and sisters in day-to-day life—something that makes watching O’Neal’s betrayal cut incredibly deep.

Now, while everything with Kaluuya as Hampton continually draws you in, the same can’t always be said about O’Neal’s betrayal narrative. Stanfield puts in another excellent performance, but most of the narrative surrounding his betrayal isn’t as compelling. For the most part, it’s the usual moments of him meeting up with FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to sell the Panthers out and a couple tense moments of his cover nearly being blown that King still makes thrilling, but definitely feel familiar. The toughest sell, though, is making you care at all about O’Neal because he’s just not that likable. Even though Mitchell essentially forces O’Neal into this situation, he rarely questions anything and even smiles after he screws people over. If his narrative is meant to showcase someone slowly losing their soul, it already feels like most of it is gone by the time we meet him. However, O’Neal’s betrayal hits hard in the film’s perfect final act.

Even while O’Neal is pretty impossible to empathize with throughout the film, when it comes time for him to live up to his Judas title and set Hampton up for assassination, you can really feel the walls closing in on him. Stanfield becomes much more emotional as reality starts to set in that Hampton’s days are numbered even as his girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback) is expecting their first child, and the film reflects on what they’ve lost. It all builds towards his assassination, which is sudden, ruthless, and absolutely tears your heart out. It’s sad to see such a genuinely impactful figure go out in such a merciless and heartbreaking way and the film doesn’t hold back for a second in showing the brutality and suddenness of the moment. King uses the film’s final moments though to show how Hampton’s message and legacy lives on to this day, leaving you hopeful and instilling that same revolutionary spirit in the viewer.

Judas and the Black Messiah lives up to its name in both bringing Hampton’s revolutionary and unifying spirit to life through Kalyuua’s impeccable performance and creating a modern depiction of Judas through Stanfield as O’Neal in a familiar yet thrilling betrayal narrative that leaves you broken.

Judas and the Black Messiah is now streaming on HBOMax.

Tom Moore
Tom Moorehttps://mooreviews.com/
Tom is always ready to see and review everything horrifying and hilarious that hits theaters, television, and video games...sometimes. You can check out his other reviews and articles on his blog, Mooreviews.


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