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REVIEW: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

I recently watched an interview with director Shaka King, talking about what defines his latest film Judas and the Black Messiah – history.

It’s a great point of reference when placed in context. The stories we’re frequently exposed to, are stories we’ve grown accustomed to. For over 100 years, the narratives have become familiar, where stories follow the traditional path of expectation and execution. Actions become normalised as excuses to explain away problematic narratives. And when those stories are tied to history – certainly in the case of film’s subject matter of The Black Panthers – that history becomes inaccessible, forgotten, diluted, suppressed, and eventually erased. And while history is intent in painting the same image throughout various mediums, without the frame, the canvas, or the paints itself, what we always see is an incomplete picture.

In essence, what Judas and the Black Messiah accomplishes (with aplomb) is to reverse that narrative, de-mystifying the myths about the movement into a powerful, complex, and multi-layered examination on community activism and state-sponsored violence that speaks volumes on the current plight of our society today.

What King and fellow writers Will Berson and Kenneth and Keith Lucas bring to the table is education. Like any good film, it leaves you wanting more, rapidly Google searching after the end credits to digest all the information you can find. Here, that ideology is expressed with the Black Panthers’ community programmes for education and healthcare, born out of necessity to serve and support the people. That hope it celebrates is distorted by the law, quick to demonise and label as ‘terrorists’ and ‘threats to society’. And when that education is interwoven with references to Emmett Till, Bobby Seale (most recently depicted by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in The Trial of the Chicago 7) and the brutality against Black lives (especially more relevant now after 2020), no lies are detected when the film professes “America is on fire now.”

And in navigating that truth, there’s subversion at play. Filmed not in the conventional, biopic manner, King’s film expertly upends tradition, and crafts an absorbing two-hander that is thoughtfully patient and takes its time to evolve. In depicting Chairman Fred Hampton’s legacy (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and his fateful betrayal by Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), it’s told through O’Neal’s eyes, exploring the murky grey areas of being an informant for the FBI and the price of freedom – no matter how ugly it is.

In bringing Fred Hampton’s story and legacy to life, Kaluuya’s performance is a gift, filled with empowerment and humility, leaving you hanging on his every word. There’s a tendency when depicting real-life historical figures, to place them on a gigantic pedestal where they become unreachable. But here, it’s grounded, humanised to a poetic and spiritual level where the ideas he pioneered and the people he unified are brought to the surface, and the power behind his speeches is nothing short of electric.

And that performance is helped by Kaluuya’s interaction with Dominque Fishback’s brilliant performance as Deborah. When it comes to stories about revolutions, women are often left behind in the story. Judas and the Black Messiah is not perfect in that regard – other female characters who were integral to the movement don’t get the same thoroughness (which is expected when the film is reliant on two perspectives). But as the film’s emotional heart, Fishback’s performance showcases the power of words through poetry, amplifying the pride of being part of the revolution and the subsequent fear of what freedom costs.

Kaluuya will undoubtedly reap from the plaudits (and deservingly so for a career-best for the actor), but LaKeith Stanfield’s portrayal of Bill O’Neal should not be left out of the conversation. On the surface, O’Neal’s characterisation is billed as the villain of the piece – the film’s ‘Judas’. But as a vessel for destruction, Stanfield brings an abundance of depth and empathy for such a divisive individual. So good is his performance, that on more than one occasion, it’s hard to nail down O’Neal’s true beliefs and intentions. In one scene, his ‘act’ is referenced as an Oscar-winning performance by his unsettling FBI handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) declaring ‘you can’t cheat towards equality’ (which speaks volumes about protesting on so-called defined terms).

Is O’Neal selfish, looking out for himself as implied when he’s sharing information with the FBI and enjoying the perks of the role? Or does he believe in Fred Hampton’s cause and the goal of Black liberation? “I think I’ll let history speak for me,” he says in his one (and only) interview on Eyes on the Prize 2, showcasing the full psychological weight behind his thinking. This is a man who’s aware of power, its uses and its applications – even when he is left with no choice and blackmailed into decisions (like his criminal charges) or when the tables are turned and he has to fight for his own survival. And it’s LaKeith’s ability to shift through the various gears of emotional turmoil and conflict that showcases the multitude of complexities within the deception. There is no easy answer for such a difficult role to play, and that is the beauty behind his performance.

And it’s because of that complexity, that the film rests on a dreaded knife edge. Like its homages to Infernal Affairs (and its subsequent remake The Departed), it gradually builds that ‘pressure cooker’ tension and foreboding escalation that culminates into a devastating and shocking final 20 minutes. There’s an inescapable heartbreak to these emotions which the film conveys, leaving you unable to look away from the screen for a moment.

Judas and the Black Messiah is without question a contender for film of the year, not just because of its magnetic performances by its star leads, but its profound ability to tie together the struggle, love, and liberation into one incredible film. And its importance in history still proves there are lessons to uncover and re-learn.

Rating: ★★★★

Judas and the Black Messiah premiered at Sundance 2021 and comes to HBO Max in the US on Friday 12 February 2021.

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