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Film Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

12 April 21 words: Roshan Chandy

Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying in this gripping, incendiary Black Lives Matter drama, writes Roshan Chandy...

Director: Shaka King
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
Running time: 126 minutes

The best film of this awards season has arrived and it’s perfect Black Lives Matter viewing. Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah—the story of the killing of Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton—is a gripping, incendiary drama that mixes acting and archive footage, comedy and suspense and politics and power play to make Spike Lee proud. This is up there with that director’s best work.

The era is the late 1960s and 17 year old petty criminal William “Bill” O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is arrested in Chicago for attempting to hijack a car while impersonating a police officer. O’Neal is approached by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (a much fuller-faced Jesse Plemons from Breaking Bad) who makes a promise of dropping the man’s charges if he does undercover work for the FBI. O’Neal agrees and is thus assigned to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its leader Fred Hampton (played with muscular physicality by Daniel Kaluuya).

O’Neal grows close to Hampton, working to form alliances with rival gangs and militia groups while looking to extend community outreach through the BPP’s Free Breakfast for Children program. Hampton’s persuasive oratory skills eventually help form the multiracial Rainbow Coalition. Hampton is also in love with fellow BPP member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Meanwhile, O’Neal relays intel to Mitchell with a return compensation of money.

First thing to say about this movie is that it has urgent contemporary relevance. Any film about the killing of a senior black activist is going to invite inevitable comparisons with the unlawful killing of George Floyd last year and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pulsatingly political…Daniel Kaluuya’s performance is extraordinary

Judas and the Black Messiah is pulsatingly political. It has real-life footage of interviews with Hampton and O’Neal playing in between scenes that simply cut to black as if the music and movie is too tired to go on and simply hangs its head in empathetic shame at the racism and injustice at hand. I wonder whether the cut to black is symbolic of the skin colour of the central character or merely going to say that there is no such thing as black and white morality in the modern world.

There’s also moments of genuine horror with the camera darting from Daniel Kaluuya’s gaze to scenes of police officers staking out buildings and shooting down suspects for little apparent reason. The eventual shooting of Hampton reminded me of nothing more than the hotel stakeout scenes in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit—almost home invasion horror genre stuff.

Daniel Kaluuya’s performance is extraordinary. I’ve always said this man is going to be huge one day ever since his supporting, very funny role in Johnny English Reborn ten years ago, and 2021 looks set to be the year he wins his first Oscar. Kaluuya has politely quizzical and ironic eyes, but he also has muscles and a stocky build that is perfect for performing the anger and activism of a man as committed to bringing black lives to the forefront as Fred Hampton. It’s a terrific performance.

The soundtrack of this movie is the most bizarre for this kind of social realist drama. It swings from saxophoney staccatos to minimalist “bum, bum, bum” synthesizers—very old-fashioned and reminiscent of the kind of backing music that played against the Sidney Poitier movies of the sixties. Maybe Kaluuya is the new Poitier?

Overall, this is a really terrific film. Essential Black Lives Matter viewing, but also a lot more universal. I can imagine this becoming a classic in the years to come.

Judas and the Black Messiah is on multiple platforms now

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