Judas and the Black Messiah doesn’t mess around, with a powerful intro that some films would save for the very end. It’s also an acting master class, with performers who have been putting in time for a decade: like it was all leading to this moment. Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t just a history lesson, it’s a good drama.
With its Jazz-like editing, director Shaka King quickly moves from narrative to narrative, focusing on two key players: Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), head of the Chicago Black Panther party, and William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an informant for the FBI. What could have been a trite “double agent” story quickly blossoms into a bigger commentary on civil rights as a whole, while keeping a sense of urgency.
Judas and the Black Messiah is like a slow burn mystery in parts, with multiple angles, including one from a tortured FBI agent’s point of view. The real meat is mostly in the performances. This is arguably Kaluuya’s most interesting role yet, and Lakeith Stanfield, as usual, is striking: piercing through the screen with his gaze and razor focus. Jesse Plemons also continues to be one of this generation’s most underrated talents, never overacting when he shows us his subdued pain.
As for Kaluuya and Stanfield’s characters, we as the audience get to see their arcs grow before our eyes. We aren’t just told that Fred Hampton is a demogague, we get to see him become a leader. The same goes for O’Neal, who we witness at his lowest low at the start of the film before his bid to rise in the ranks of the Black Panther organization. The story somehow doesn’t feel truncated or rushed; we get in when we need to, then get out.
Shaka King’s DNA is all over this film, given that they also worked on the story and the script, which is the glue that holds it all together. Although it’s grounded in reality, King’s work as a writer on High Maintenance and his ability to write real dialogue is apparent. There are very few cliché moments, and sometimes, characters don’t need to say anything at all to get the point across. There’s a lot of subtext in Judas and the Black Messiah, and it’s been fascinating unpacking it all days after watching the film for the first time. Shaka King has a long career ahead of them if they can keep balancing drama and realism like this.