With the nationwide events of the past year, it is quite cathartic to see a film that feels so in tune with current events. Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is an incredible film with outstanding performances from LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, and Jesse Plemons.
In case you are unaware, Judas and the Black Messiah follows the true story of William O’Neal (Stanfield) serving as an FBI informant infiltrating the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to investigate Fred Hampton (Kaluuya). As crazy as it may sound, the plot basically functions similar to films like Dances With Wolves and Avatar. The viewer follows O’Neal as he grows closer and closer to the Panthers, sympathizing with them along the way. This could seem redundant, but thanks to Shaka King’s excellent direction, the film comes across as wholly fresh and original.
That vision from King is one of the film’s strongest bonuses. Despite this only being his sophomore feature, the film is handled with the care and confidence of a true master. Every aspect from the cinematography, to the editing, and to the score, all feel like departures from standard cinematic conventions. The entire film has rogue energy to it. The energy King presents feels wholly his own, creating a unique experience. This reminded me of current directors like Eugene Kotlyarenko and the Safdie Brothers, who operate with their own energetic styles.
Now I must move on to the biggest attention-grabbers of the film, and that’s the performances. First, to get it out of the way, Kaluuya absolutely kills it as Fred Hampton, chewing up every scene he’s in. Kaluuya truly transformed himself, as all the actors did, into an unrecognizable state. I no longer saw Daniel Kaluuya, but rather the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Kaluuya is definitely deserving of award season attention, and I’d even say a win. However, Kaluuya isn’t the only actor acting at the top of his game, because LaKeith Stanfield gives one of the best performances of the year. His acting, while more subdued than Kaluuya’s, is equally as effective and gripping. Stanfield manages to make the audience side with him in every scene with just a simple expression or look. He also makes the audience feel what he feels in every scene, resulting in the film acting as a rollercoaster of emotions. Now on to Jesse Plemons who also gives a phenomenal performance. His character could easily be forgettable and dull, but Plemons adds so much humanization and relatability to the character. Due to incredible performances, I cared for the drama between the actors.
In addition to King’s strong visual eye and the incredible ensemble, the music from the film adds to the experience. The score comes across as multi-genre, and it works because it balances these genre tonal shifts. The score contributes a lot to how the film works as an energetic experience, similar to films like Good Time or Punch-Drunk Love.
Flaws (albeit minor)
My only issues would be some of the conventions the film follows. The film as a whole feels very unique and out there, but the small conventional pieces feel moderately weaker. Just some of the scenes between Hampton and Deborah Johnson are enjoyable but slow down the fast-paced energy.
Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah is a phenomenal film, with outstanding performances and direction. I adored this film and give it a 4.5/5.
The film is free with an HBO Max subscription and I definitely recommend you give it a watch.
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