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MOVIES: Judas and the Black Messiah - Review

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Arguably one of the first great movies of the 2021 theatrical release window, Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful, moving and vitaully important passionate piece of filmmaking that cements Shaka King as a director to watch. It’s a tour-de-force steeped in tragedy and betrayal, transporting the audience to 1969 looking at the assassination of Fred Hampton, which was briefly covered in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven earlier in the year. Here; Daniel Kaluuya steps in to play the deputy chairman of the Black Panther party, as the film explores the turbulent events that led to his betrayal and explore the manipulation of the US Government that played a role in his death.

Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah captures the vision of Fred Hampton. He’s a force to be reckoned with; and Kaluuya gives it his all every time he’s on screen. The only problem that I have with his casting is that the film could have almost used someone younger for the role; it doesn’t quite do the fact that Fred Hampton was only 21 when he died justice, but that’s more into Hollywood casting safe bets rather than risking it with unknowns; and Kaluuya is the safest of safe bets. You know from the word go that you’re going to get a performance of a lifetime, and in an ideal world, the performance here should be a best supporting actor frontrunner, because he’s just that. His speeches are powerful, and the film effectively does a good job at humanising Fred Hampton and looking at the good intentions of the Black Panther party, making the fall that comes in the final act of the film all the more tragic by comparison.

But Kaluuya is only the supporting actor here, the role of “Judas” to Kaluuya’s Messiah is played tremendously by Lakeith Stanfield as one of the best double acts of the last few years. Stanfield knocks it out of the park – he’s someone who makes a mistake and is captured by Roy Mitchell, an FBI Agent working under J. Edgar Hoover. Plemons’ Mitchell is cunning and ruthless enough to turn Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal against Fred Hampton from the start, putting him in the Black Panther party as an inside man. It’s a testament to Shaka King’s brilliance that he completely invests you in Bill O’Neal’s journey, it’s his story as much as it is Hampton’s, and the two revolve around each other as the years go by and O’Neal finds himself heavily involved in the Black Panther party. It’s a brilliant portrayal by Stanfield that keeps you on edge – you’re never quite sure whether he’s fully bought into the vision of Fred Hampton or not, and whether or not he’s still acting for the Government. That suspense and dilemma hangs over his shoulders as something that he’s forced to reckon with long after the events of the film have ended.

In the supporting roles Dominique Fishback and Jesse Plemons are both brilliant. Fishback portrays Deborah Johnson to perfection; whilst Plemons is coolly, calmly manipulative as he continues to establish himself as Hollywood’s go-to- sleazeball that makes him instantly despicable from the second he walks on screen. He’s the perfect antagonist for this movie; a cog in the government machine. Judas and the Black Messiah never completely “both sides” true events either meaning that Mitchell is someone you never feel sympathetic for, allowing O’Neal and Hampton to be the main driving forces of the narrative as you get an insight into both characters' psychologies and what works about who they are. It’s rare that you get a second in the film without either of Kaluuya or Stanfield on screen, and the film completely transports you into its era with immaculate set-design and attention to detail.

The flaws with this movie lie primarily in what they decided to cut out rather than what was left in, and it almost doesn’t feel brave or daring enough. Predictably for a major Hollywood movie (it's a Warner Bros film that premiered on HBO Max in the USA before making its way over to the UK as a PVOD title), the Black Panther Party’s association with communism is left to the side, largely appearing in the background and I could have seen more scenes of them interacting with the local community beyond the small amounts of content that we do get – it feels like an afterthought as the film broadly ignores Fred Hampton's Marxist anti-capitalist politics when it should have spent more time with them, and I have gripes about the safe-bet castings even if at the time I acknowledge them as tremendous performances in their own right and want them to win awards. If anything; Judas and the Black Messiah is the rare already-great movie that feels too short, I could have used an extra half an hour.

Judas and the Black Messiah was released yesterday in the UK on PVOD platforms and is available to stream on HBO Max in the USA.

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