Judas and the Black Messiah is drama directed by Shaka King, who also co-writes alongside Will Benson, which tells the true story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Black Panther Party, and his betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield). Set in 1960s Chicago, the film follows the growing conflict between the political activists and their authoritarian counterparts and the relationships, agendas and decisions which ultimately lead our two main characters to their respective destinies.
Kaluuya shines as the titular ‘Messiah’ giving a performance that leaps off the screen, whether he is giving a thunderous speech or having a quiet intimate moment with his girlfriend, played brilliantly by Dominique Fishback, he commands every scene. It is a performance that could have been showy or over the top award baiting, but Kaluuya brings a stern humility to proceedings, making Hampton believable as both a barnstorming revolutionary and flawed activist. An underplayed scene with a fellow BPP members mother and an impassioned speech to his followers are highlights. Next to him is Lakeith Stanfield as the ‘Judas’ of our story, William O’Neil, who is masterful as the nervous informant helping plot the downfall of his ‘friend’ while gradually questioning the nature of his relationship with the FBI. He is not a sympathetic character in most traditional senses, but Stanfields performance is equally as layered as Kaluuya’s, with his visage of confidence and assuredness threatening to give way to his weakness and desperation.
King‘s direction is assured and effective, balancing the moments of violence and rage with wonderfully nuanced and more intimate scenes. One of the constant themes of the film is ‘War and Politics’ and the differences, or lack thereof, between the too. Of course this raises parallels with the current climate in America, and further afield, however he manages to keep himself from sledgehammering the point across and instead gives a balanced, and by extension more effective, portrayal of the conflicting ideologies that surround our characters.
The editing and soundtrack are very effective, with the pace, even in quieter more meditative moments, never seeming to dip. The score punctuates character decisions and set the tone wonderfully. Visually the film is stunning to look at, feeling at times bright, open and energetic and at others claustrophobic, perfectly reflecting our characters and the situations they find themselves in. Brilliantly directed, wonderfully acted and gorgeous to look at, this is an excellent film, however it is not without its flaws.
The main problem with the film come from a lack of focus. We expect our core relationship, that of Hampton and O’Neil, to be front and centre but they, at times, seem to be separate stories running alongside the other. While both actors, as mentioned, are excellent in the roles, O’Neil in particular feels underwritten; we never really get a great sense of his background and motivations. Likewise there isn’t a huge amount of time dedicated to their friendship, its hard not to feel that more time in their company would have made the last emotional gut punch all the more effective. We also spend too much time with Martin Sheen’s one note presentation of J.Edgar Hoover, which shifts us away from the central conflict of the film, both in tone and pacing.
This may not be a perfect film, if such a thing exists, however it is a well directed, acted and highly effective presentation of a story which is as relevant today as it was many years ago.
Drama, History | USA, 2021 |15 | PVOD | 11th March 2021 (UK) |Warner Bros | Dir. Shaka King | Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen.