Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★½

"I am a revolutionary!"

Shaka King! Damn.

There's a lot about Judas and the Black Messiah that feels reminiscent of the great crime thrillers of the late 60s and 70s, from Taxi Driver to Uptight to Mikey and Nicky: Sean Bobbitt's gorgeous cinematography, lingering on the neon signs and dim streetlights; Shaka King's sharp directorial eye, which makes this a lean, mean tragic thriller; the cast of young actors who are destined to be future legends. This is a terrific slice of American mythmaking, a story that deserved to be told and heard by everyone forced to live in our racist society.

Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya have already started carving out reputations as two of the best actors of their generation, and both are really great in this. Kaluuya, who is all but guaranteed to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, embodies Fred Hampton in a way that's almost eerie in how committed it is. The Oscars have lately been really taken with awarding self-aware imitations of real people, but Kaluuya's performance certainly is not one of them. He turns speeches into symphonies, and his relationship with Deborah (Dominique Fishback), who goes from student to revolutionary, remains the warm, beating heart of this chilly film. Fishback is so good in this as well; this should really be a star-making performance for her. Stanfield, who is inexplicably also nominated for Supporting Actor (I think we can blame a combination of math, Oscar rules, and Kaluuya's indisputable status as frontrunner for that), has been building up one of the most impressive résumés around in less than ten years, and if this isn't his greatest role yet, it certainly plays to many of his strengths. Very few actors can do what he can do with just his eyes; indeed, O'Neal doesn't seem like a particularly extroverted person, so much of his inner conflict is relegated to his face rather than in monologues. Rounding out the stellar cast are the fantastic Ashton Sanders, Dominique Thorne, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Jesse Plemons.

So much of Judas could have easily fallen into familiar biopic territory, but save for some (well-earned) title cards at the end, this film stands tall as a testament to biographical filmmaking and to correcting the white historical record of the Black Panther Party. It's been over a month since I watched it and I'm already eager to revisit it.

Elliott liked this review