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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Judas and the Black Messiah

Already winning Daniel Kaluuya a Golden Globe, this ferocious historical drama steps inside the FBI's quest to bring down a Black Panther Party leader.
By Sarah Ward
March 11, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
March 11, 2021
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The last time that Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield appeared in the same film, Get Out was the end result. Their shared scene in Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror movie isn't easily forgotten — if you've seen the feature, it will have instantly popped into your head while you're reading this — and neither is Judas and the Black Messiah, their next exceptional collaboration. With Kaluuya starring as the Black Panther Party's Illinois Chairman Fred Hampton and Stanfield playing William O'Neal, the man who infiltrated his inner circle as an informant for the FBI, the pair is still tackling race relations. Here, though, the duo does so in a ferocious historical drama set in the late 60s. The fact that O'Neal betrays Hampton isn't a spoiler; it's a matter of fact, and the lens through which writer/director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) and his co-scribes Kenneth Lucas, Keith Lucas (actors on Lady Dynamite) and Will Berson (Scrubs) view the last period of Hampton's life.

It's 1966 when O'Neal falls afoul of the law for trying to impersonate an FBI agent to steal a vehicle. With J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, Grace and Frankie) directing his employees to "prevent the rise of a 'messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement" — his real-life words — the car thief is offered a deal by actual FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, I'm Thinking of Ending Things). If O'Neal cosies up to Hampton, then reports back on his comings, goings, political moves and general plans, he'll avoid jail. Initially apprehensive, he acquiesces to keep his freedom. With Hampton's raging speeches earning him a firm following, and his charisma and canny strategies broadening the crowds hanging on his words, O'Neal's task isn't minor. And the further he ingratiates himself into Hampton's confidence, becoming his head of security, the more he's torn about keeping tabs and doing the government's increasingly nefarious bidding.

The magnetic Kaluuya has already won a Golden Globe for his performance, and is bound to be nominated for and likely win an Oscar — but his Best Supporting Actor categorisation is misleading. Judas and the Black Messiah spends ample time with Hampton, as it needs to. While O'Neal works his way into his orbit, Hampton meets and falls for fellow Black Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, The Deuce), with their romance surviving arrests, other informants, prison, police shootouts and various underhanded law enforcement tactics. This isn't just a story about one young Black man coerced into bringing down a rising leader and revolutionary, but also of the figure mobilising the masses as Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X had, until he was shot while he slept at the age of just 21. And, it's a tale about the powers-that-be's abject fear of progress, equality, and the crusaders willing to put their lives on the line to fight for justice and a better world.

As the twin film phenomenon has shown since the dawn of the medium, movies about the same topic or premise often reach screens concurrently. With Seberg, The Trial of Chicago 7 and now Judas and the Black Messiah, Hollywood has delivered three dramas within just over 12 months that examine the efforts of those supposedly upholding the law as they actively work to suppress anyone who doesn't suit their vision for America, all based on truth and all drawing upon the same period (Hampton also pops up in The Trial of Chicago 7, played by Waves' Kelvin Harrison Jr, in fact). The arrival of this trio in such short succession isn't a coincidence. Made by different filmmakers, they aren't connected or part of a purposeful approach, but US cinema is rightly reckoning with the imbalance that has been entrenched into its society. Alongside phenomenal documentary MLK/FBI, which steps through the concerted campaign by America's intelligence agencies to surveil and attack its eponymous subject, these politically charged and downright enraged pictures are deservingly carving out their own space and insisting that viewers pay attention to events that remain of immense relevance today.

Managing to make everything look and feel equally slick, visceral, urgent and relentless (with vivid help from Widows' cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and his eye for colourful period detail, and from the production and costume design teams, too), King directs Judas and the Black Messiah like he's doing more than chronicling history. He is, of course. It's impossible to watch this film in the wake of America's particularly divisive past four years, and of the Black Lives Matter movement and its quest for fairness, and not see parallels. But Judas and the Black Messiah doesn't just use its narrative to reflect the present. Doing what only the best movies that look back at the past and its many problems achieve, it roves its eyes over times gone by, shines a spotlight on rampant oppression and the struggle against it, and condenses a wealth of information into a gripping feature — but it also revels in the minutiae of both O'Neal and Hampton's stories. Both are state-sanctioned ones tragedies, and they're as scalding and searing as they still should be. Alluding to the bible in its title might seem bold, but the reality here should be known as far and wide as any religious text.

Also demanding notice: those two fierce performances by returning co-stars, each of which stand out in their own ways. Black Panther and Queen & Slim's Kaluuya commands the screen during every single one of his real-life character's speeches, and brings thoughtfulness and texture to a man who is never simply lionised. As for Sorry to Bother You, Uncut Gems and Knives Out's Stanfield, he plays conflicted with a raw, nervy air — and with the vulnerability and confusion of someone manipulated into a cause he genuinely wants to be a part of, yet required to double-cross the people he believes in. So much about Judas and the Black Messiah scorches itself into memory, although fans of its central duo will find themselves left with a distinctive dream. If Kaluuya and Stanfield can keep acting in movies this invigorating, ardent, resonant and essential, audiences will keep basking in their greatness.

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