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All that I had known about Fred Hampton before seeing Judas and the Black Messiah at the preview screening at Luna Cinemas Leederville a few weeks back was his brief appearance in The Trial of the Chicago 7, played by the incredible and vastly underrated Kelvin Harrison Jr. Hampton’s fictional role in that film was to advise Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in his wrongful prosecution. His assassination takes place off-screen between court days, leading to Seale’s massive outburst that results in him being bound and gagged in the courtroom. Basically, Hampton is just used as an emotional crux for Seale’s character even though research shows his death happened a month after Seale’s severance from the case and two months after Seale’s infamous gagging. He’s there for a bit, played by an amazing actor deserving of a much bigger role, and then he disappears.
Judas and the Black Messiah seeks to, in the very best way, do justice to such a revolutionary man who could have been, as the title plainly suggests, a “Black Messiah”, seeing as he was one of the last few popular Black influences in the ongoing civil rights movement after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. The question is posed behind the lines of the screenplay “who could he have been?”, but that question can still be asked of so many Black figures in the 1960s and still today. It cannot be helped to see the events of the film play out and hear the questions raised by the filmmakers and feel the emotions of the characters and draw direct comparisons to the movements and emotions that drive today’s fight for racial justice.
Directed and co-written by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah features Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal who is co-opted into going undercover as a new member for the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and spying on the chapter’s enigmatic leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Kaluuya and Stanfield, though they may both be competing for Best Supporting Actor at this year’s 93rd Oscars, together lead the entire film with such force that it blows you away in every scene. Each actor honours these real life figures with a power and tenacity, whether it be their colleagues or those they will inevitably betray, they also show deep humanity within the small spaces found in one-on-one interactions.
Kaluuya gets the powerful speeches to display his fire and fury loud and proud and we love to see it. As Hampton, Kaluuya uses his platform to speak truth to power, empowering the victimised and forgotten to do something greater than what society believes them capable of. Kaluuya has given us such tender and subdued performances in Sicario, Get Out,and Widows, always feeling like there is far more under the surface, and here the surface is broken and it is all let out, doing an incredible job with it all.
To no less avail is Lakeith Stanfield who I, and many others, have loved since his memorable scene of emotional disintegration in Short Term 12. He had a few bit parts since that film here and there in films like Selma, Dope, and Straight Outta Compton, but then he had a one-two-three punch between 2016 and 2018 with supporting roles in Donald Glover’s masterful series Atlanta and Get Out (to which he memorably gave us the film’s title) and the lead role in Boots Riley’s uncompromising Sorry to Bother You. In all of his appearances, through the vast range crafted within his varied characters, I saw an actor of striking emotional power with just the look in his eyes.
His presence so naturally exudes pain and insecurity, channelled perfectly here into the walking cauldron of anxiety and divisive morality that is William O’Neal. Judas and the Black Messiah gives O’Neal a story the history books may have otherwise denied, one of a poor Black man trying to escape the turn of the world but finding himself in the middle of the fight he doesn’t know how to survive. He is forced to be the tool of powerful white men and we have to believe he hates his situation. Why would anyone choose to do this? The pain and the horror of the hole that opens wider and deeper as the film goes on is driven by Stanfield’s perfect performance, and he deserves every ounce of possible praise.
Right alongside these two incredible men leading the film are Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, and Dominique Thorne all giving this film their all. Fishback gives such life to all of her scenes and Thorne balances the scale with eye-opening fury and command of her situation. Both actresses are going to be the next big thing in these coming years and I am here for it. Jesse Plemons continues his incredible career of essentially being the heir apparent to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s legacy of playing unsettling and fully realised characters no matter the context.
Sean Bobbitt, the right-hand man to Steve McQueen’s feature films, serves as cinematographer here and gives every frame an energy and reality that is both gorgeous to look at and terrifying to feel. Mark Isham and Craig Harris’ score is just as unnerving and jagged as the story itself, complimenting it perfectly. As a period piece, Judas and the Black Messiah is realised wonderfully by the costume and production design teams, enhancing the truth of the story with equal grit, grime and a worn quality that feels so transportive.
This is Shaka King’s first feature film since his debut feature Newlyweeds premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, which has yet to be fully seen by the general public. King does an excellent job handling such a hefty production, as any period piece is, but gives the film such a lovely human quality, choosing to use extensive camerawork when intensely focused on our main characters. The camera doesn’t suddenly twist and turn because it looks cool, it only does so when intense action is involved or something so emotionally destructive has happened that we need to feel the entire space. It is clean, efficient and commanding direction that I loved seeing.
In the second act, some plotlines or pieces of storytelling feel rather stretched out or extraneous, possibly requiring some slight shaving to maintain the efficient pace established in the beginning. It’s more than welcome to have the end of the film be a slow and inevitable march towards inevitability, but a few areas beforehand could have done with a more ruthless cut. One example is the film following characters played by Ashton Sanders and Algee Smith who play possibly real-life people, but their stories could have been condensed to keep the focus more intensely on the conflicts of Hampton and O’Neal.
Regardless, Judas and the Black Messiah is an arresting picture that strips away clichés of the white-manufactured history of the Black Panther Party and gives us the truth. Through the eyes of someone turn between duty and belief, we are given a thoughtful, riveting and sobering film made of pain and commitment to keeping alive the spirit of an assassinated man. A story all too familiar to Black communities.
Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback
Writers: Shaka King, Will Berson, (based on a story by Shaka King, Will Berson, Kenny Lucas, Keith Lucas)
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