Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★½

Here in the UK, Fred Hampton doesn't get talked about. Martin Luther King? All the time, probably the only civil rights and racial justice activist schools even dare to mention other than Nelson Mandela. Malcolm X? Not much, but his name may crop up every now and then. But Hampton is a complete rarity, clearly a figure that still provokes and worries the white hegemony of our culture and education system. I'm not sure what the stance is in America, but in Britain he is scarce. How fitting then that an actor with such grace, gravitas, magnetism and sheer power as the great Daniel Kaluuya should be the one to portray Chairman Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, a worthy examination and study of the Black Panther Party chairman and the hostile period in which he rose to prominence.

Judas... does stumble early on, it has to be said. Plot points and story beats are rushed through briskly and without much emotion, all to move the players in place, thrusting us abruptly into this story through the eyes of Lakeith Stanfield's William "Bill" O'Neal. The mechanisms surrounding Hampton are rather procedural and elementary, but when Hampton takes to centre stage, Judas... ascends to a blistering height, lifted up on Kaluuya's shoulders. He delivers a truly commanding performance that anchors the film phenomenally, Hampton is charming and magnetic, Kaluuya navigating the charismatic leader and his numerous awe inspiring speeches and mannerisms with such intensity and sheer magnificence, such is the strength of his performance, loud and fiery one minute, yet intimately emotional and heart-breaking the next, that Judas... suffers in the moments when he is not on screen. We yearn to see more of this captivating figure.

But that is by no means a hinderance to the rest of the ensemble, far from it. Stanfield takes on the film's other most substantial role and is far quieter and more introspective than Kaluuya, at times seeming to be breezing through without much conviction, but when you're least expecting it, Stanfield will hit the switch and devastate in a second. O'Neal's inner turmoil and conflict gradually works its way outward, Stanfield captures this journey with tremendous patience and delicacy, his titular Judas becoming scarily sympathetic by the end of the film. For one to sell their soul to the devil and still come out in such a way is a mark of the work of a fine actor. The film does have a secret weapon up its sleeve: Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Hampton's girlfriend. Fishback more than holds her own alongside Kaluuya, like Stanfield she can stun with a simple look, one scene near the end of the film sees the camera sit on her face as the story's darkest hour unfolds around her, Director Shaka King trusts her wholeheartedly to guide us through this moment, her steely determination and internal heartbreak collide in a haunting way, Fishback is utterly phenomenal.

It's a credit to Shaka King's direction that, despite this being only his second feature film to date, Judas... is a handsomely crafted and impressively mounted biopic, the work of a director seemingly much more advanced in his career than King. Whilst he may be hindered at times by a script that tries to pack just a little too much into two hours, King displays a fascinating amount of patience in how he lets the story progress, the story may take some big jumps, King allows the central core of Judas... to gradually burn away, exploding in a hugely powerful third act. It's only once we have witnessed the first 80 minutes that we can reflect on what we have been shown, the struggle we have been led through: an examination of the systematic suppression and undercutting of black pride by the white man at a time when this injustice was most shamelessly endorsed and pursued. Leave it to an actor as sneakily slimy as Jesse Plemons, playing FBI agent Roy Mitchell, to sit and provoke O'Neal and gaslight him into believing his propaganda, just as the tragedy of Judas... comes to a head. This kind of central theme does not age, after the year we've had it's infuriating to know that it doesn't.

Ultimately, Judas and the Black Messiah is a powder keg of a film, one that is not afraid to unveil its heart until its very end, Daniel Kaluuya will amaze you, Lakeith Stanfield will haunt you, and Dominique Fishback will break your heart. Whilst there is a burning intensity to Judas and the Black Messiah as it goes on, there is a restraint that really brings the film together in the end, brilliantly executed by Shaka King in a devastatingly timely film that demands your attention.

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