[This piece was originally published in Issue #4 of JumpCut: The Magazine in April 2021]
Londoner Daniel Kaluuya and Californian LaKeith Stanfield are two of the most exciting actors of their generation. They’ve both just been nominated (somewhat controversially) in the supporting actor category for this year’s Oscars – even though they both play the titular roles in Shaka King’s Judas (Stanfield) and the Black Messiah (Kaluuya). This is the second time the two have shared the screen after Jordan Peele’s Get Out (for which Kaluuya was Oscar-nominated for Lead Actor).
After appearing in a succession of British TV shows (most notably Skins and Black Mirror) for a decade, Daniel Kaluuya broke out in 2017’s Get Out. His work in five films between 2017-2021, all with Black directors (Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, Steve McQueen, Melina Matsoukas and Shaka King) have solidified him as a major Hollywood star and it’s rare for a male actor who is just over 30 to be twice Oscar-nominated already. Interestingly, Kaluuya plays American characters in four out of five of these films (with the fifth role being a Wakandan) and it’s really since breaking out of the British TV and film industry that he has found big success. This tells you a lot about the British industry for Black actors and how they have to turn to American films and TV for work, but that is for another article.
LaKeith Stanfield’s first feature-film role was in Short Term 12 (2013), which has proven to be a breeding-ground for talented and successful actors including John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz and the Oscar-winning Brie Larson and Rami Malek. He played Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton (2015), the lead role of a wrongly imprisoned man in Crown Heights (2017) and a series of boyfriends, exes and one-night-stands in the women-centred (and recommended) The Incredible Jessica James (2017), Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town (2017) and Someone Great (2019). Stanfield is a vital component in the success of TV show Atlanta, in which he stars with the equally ridiculously talented Donald Glover, Zazie Beetz and Brian Tyree Henry. Like Kaluuya, Stanfield has perhaps done his best and most prominent work in films with Black directors – Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018), Stella Meghie’s The Photograph (2020) and obviously Peele’s Get Out and King’s Judas and the Black Messiah.
It is far from always the case that the Academy recognises the best actors and/or performances, but Kaluuya and Stanfield are actually an example of good acting being acknowledged. But what makes them such good performers? Both actors use physicality and particularly expressive eyes (in very different ways) as an essential component in crafting characters. Kaluuya has two roles, in particular, in which he is utterly compelling, magnetic and mesmerising on-screen, but uses this quality for very different effects. In Judas, we cannot look away from him because he is the charismatic leader and orator Fred Hampton, who can command the attention of crowds, even when still and quiet. In a much smaller role, in Steve McQueen’s Widows, he plays Jatemme Manning, the menacing enforcer of the illegitimate side of a business that his brother Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) is trying to escape through achieving political power. In both roles, the fact that Kaluuya is not particularly tall is used brilliantly – he faces off against scene partners taller than him, but demands respect and wields the power in the scene despite this.
Kaluuya also uses eye contact to intimidate (in Widows) and to challenge (in Judas) – he has a penetrating stare that makes it seem as if he can see into the souls of his scene partners, revealing their secrets and their shame. In Hampton’s character introduction (the first speech we see him make), Kaluuya stays still, while his eyes search the crowd and the camera circles him (as it does in his famous scene in Widows) – there is power in his steadiness, he is the calm amongst moving elements – other actors and the camera. Kaluuya’s second most powerful weapon, after his eyes, is his voice. His pitch-perfect accent work can be heard to full effect in Hampton’s speeches (especially I Am a Revolutionary!) but his skills of oration also have to try and match the figure he is portraying. He modulates his voice – mostly staying calm, quiet and steady and only raising his voice at very carefully-controlled moments for emphasis.
Stanfield has arguably the more challenging role in Judas and the Black Messiah, not least because his character is acting for large parts of the film. It is also a more morally complex and unsympathetic character, given that he is the ‘Judas’ of the title. He especially shines in his scenes with Jesse Plemons (who plays an FBI agent), but his scenes with Kaluuya demonstrate how they use their eyes in such different ways. Stanfield’s eyes are more soulful and vulnerable, frequently giving the game away when his characters are trying to suppress their true feelings. In his role in Crown Heights, his eyes express fear and regret so well. In Judas, obviously fear is a frequent emotion again, as well as guilt. Stanfield’s constantly darting, shifty eyes juxtapose perfectly with Kaluuya’s unyielding gaze. Hampton is composed and confident that he is in the right, morally, whereas Bill O’Neal (Stanfield’s character) is in constant doubt and turmoil.
While the other film that co-stars both Kaluuya and Stanfield – Get Out – is really Kaluuya’s movie (and his nomination for Lead Actor is one of the best nominations for several decades), Stanfield makes a big impact in his short amount of screen-time. Much like Bill O’Neal in Judas, his character is one thing on the surface and something quite different underneath. In the case of Get Out, his character Andre is dressed up and paraded around like a puppet, while the real person is inside, screaming to (that’s right) get out. We see a different side to Kaluuya in Get Out than what we see in Judas and Widows. This is a role more akin to one of his much earlier ones – in the Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits (2011). He is more of an everyman, but his downfall is loving a white woman (Allison Williams in Get Out, Jessica Brown Findlay in Black Mirror) and trying to do the right thing, in increasingly unhinged surroundings. His eyes are used very differently in these two performances to what we see in Judas and Widows – to convey desperation, pleading for those around him to be sane and rational.
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are two searingly brilliant actors who can enhance natural qualities within themselves for a targeted effect in their roles, no matter who they’re playing. Both have extremely expressive eyes and know how to use them to communicate unspoken emotion or to gain the upper hand in a scene, without needing words. It’s so exciting that they’re both still young, as we have many decades of performances to look forward to. It’s also gratifying that the Academy is finally starting to acknowledge that younger male actors can produce awards-worthy performances.
The future is bright…