Sundance Review: Daniel Kaluuya stuns in magnetic 'Judas and the Black Messiah'
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton gets the well deserved biopic treatment in Shaka King’s intense historical thriller “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a showstopper that rewards Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya and co-star LaKeith Stanfield two grandslam roles to sink their teeth into. Peppered with an urgency that echoes from the 1969 killing of Hampton at the age of 21, King’s “Judas” charts the chairman’s rise and eventual massacre courtesy of J Edgar Hoover (played by a slimy, unrecognizable Martin Sheen) and how William O’Neal (Stanfield) infiltrated the Illinois chapter (and Hampton’s tight inner circle) as an FBI informant. It’s a scathing reminder the muzzling African-Americans have endured for decades, documenting how government officials swiftly stack the deck in their favor when oppressed minorities fight back.
Representing the opposite of a “sophomore slump,” King’s second feature marks one of epic scale and his script with co-writer Will Berson finds humanity while exploring Hampton’s unifying social justice message. The dramatization can occasionally get away from the filmmakers, shorting minor characters of prominent screen time (and the dueling POV perspectives of Hampton and O’Neal become weary) but King monitors those dimensions, never holding back important features audiences should hear.
King, Berson, and Kaluuya don’t sugarcoat Hampton either, contextualizing each speech to help frame the chairman’s state of mind. Kaluuya, it should be of no surprise, stuns as the prominent Illinois leader, bringing the notorious “I’m a revolutionary” speech to pulse pounding life. Dominique Fishback - playing Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend Debroah Johnson - doesn’t get pushed aside and King allows the character to become fully realized. When the camera frames her during the cruel assassination of Hampton in the final minutes, one can’t help and think to the senseless execution of Breonna Taylor, and Fishback shoulders the gut wrenching moment with sincerity.
King is wise to open his film with a prologue of Black Panther archival footage where names like Bobby Seale and Angela Davis are tossed around (and anyone who just watched “Trial of the Chicago 7” will know of Seale’s legal troubles) and of course there’s Hoover barking about Hampton’s immediate danger because his voice had the power to mobilize a strong Black coalition (God forbid). It’s those marching orders that provide inspiration for FBI agent Roy Mitchell (a wonderful Jesse Plemons) to use William O’Neal’s criminal record against him. King infuses clips of the PBS docu-series “Eyes on the Prize II” - the only on camera interview O’Neal ever gave - to further envision the torment and trauma his role caused him.
Stanfield carries large chunks of “Judas” while O’Neal’s fractured soul is caught between two worlds. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt and watching Plemons tow the line between a good cop with morals (“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”) to an errand boy who lacks ethical standards is a chilling transformation alongside Stanfield’s unparalleled range who is only matched in stature by his co-star Kaluuya.
Running a slick two hours and 15 minutes, “Judas and the Black Messiah” keeps steady motion and Kaluuya never drops that magnetic energy, keeping Hampton in check as King builds the film around him. Aided by Sean Bobbitt’s smooth cinematography and Craig Harris and Mark Isham’s terrific score (plus some delicious needle drops), King allows himself the tools to elevate “Judas” above choppier narrative patches that stretch O’Neal and Hampton’s saga in numerous directions.
At the end of the day, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is based in reality and tells Hampton’s story with heart. “Judas” encapsulates the mood of that period while finding teachable moments to bring into the present. It’s haunting, frustrating, and should spark outrage of those who see the film. But an excellent, award worthy ensemble - and King’s bold direction - help deliver a raw, emotional take on Hampton’s legacy that isn’t afraid to take risks. The primary events in “Judas and the Black Messiah” may exist in the sixties, but we’re still reeling from those aftershocks 50 years later, which tell us the revolution is only beginning.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH debuted in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release the film in theaters and HBO MAX Friday, February 12th.