Judas And The Black Messiah Review: A Fiery, Urgent Showcase From Today’s Greats
Judas and the Black Messiah is a rousing, immense powerhouse befitting of its timely – scratch that, timeless – tragedy.
Though culminating in the winter of 1969, a palpable sense of urgency permeates through Shaka King’s period piece, its principles, lessons and furies flowing through the frosty streets of Illinois right into our hearts and heads like the sorrows of yesteryear. ‘The candy-coated facade of reform’ could be a tweet uploaded today.
Issues in this movie echo enduring affairs and other significant Black stories, such as BlacKkKlansman, Fruitvale Station and Of Monsters and Men; voices challenging the American status quo. But like people, where there’s films, there’s power.
William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught trying to steal a car while impersonating a federal officer. An FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) gives him two options: face serious jail time, or become an informant helping the authorities spy on, suppress and eventually kill Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the chairman of the Black Panther Party. Et tu, comrade?
Its title, invoking the most infamous betrayal of all, is eye-widening. However, it’s not as black and white as one self-serving man stabbing a hero in the back. As the real-life figure said, he was part of the struggle and, unlike others, he had a point of view.
King, who just eight years ago was writing and directing stoner rom-coms, leads this with the accomplished flair of a filmmaker far beyond the years of his peers. Coupling with Will Berson on the script, it’s a propulsive crowd-enrager unafraid of standing still, letting two activists lie down, laugh and love simply as people, not subjects. The quiets bluster the storms.
Elsewhere, its lines carry shrewd weight. ‘No individual creates a rebellion, it’s created out of conditions,’ one line says. Another from Hampton says: ‘Where some see despair, I see ground zero for the revolution.’
With DP Sean Bobbitt, dynamic cinematography lets the film unfold with style and grit concurrently. It’s a joy for the eyes, with the the hazy, neon bar-lights of 1960s and 70s cinema clashing jarringly, still effectively with the cold, homogenous HQs, both in times of conflict and peace. The occasional gunplay, volatile and brutal, smartly isn’t played for kinetic thrills.
As earlier clips promised, Judas And The Black Messiah is at its best when Kaluuya speaks, the camera in steadfast close-up, soaking in every single rallying word. The ‘I am a revolutionary’ speech used to explosive success in the first trailer is just as breathtaking as you’d expect.
Kaluuya is transcendent as Hampton, a leader who speaks in thunderclaps to the crowds, a man capable of moving, educating and lighting the fuses of anyone, anywhere.
Speaking in Oscar prospects can reduce a great performance to gold, but this is surely our supporting actor winner. He’s so good, his absence lends itself to some slightly patchy pacing around the midway point.
Really, it’s one of this generation’s finest acting showcases: Stanfield, wrestling anxiety and guilt, has never been better; Plemons’ unnerving civility is masterfully navigated; and Dominique Fishback brings invaluable soul to the table.
Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover is bluntly sketched, though well-played thanks to the star’s innate ability to chill blood from behind a desk – seriously, everyone watch The West Wing.
With the treatment of the ‘Judas’, King has clearly made great effort to villainise only those deserving of disgrace; O’Neal was swept up in the pursuit of corruption. The internal conversations one goes through as the story unravels make for substantial viewing – they should be even greater in the wake of its release.
A dynamite picture fuelled by today’s incendiary talents. Cinema will be moulded by movies like this.
Judas and the Black Messiah hits cinemas and HBO Max in the US on February 12. It’s due for release in the UK on February 26.
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