TL;DR – This is a film that continues to show that Daniel Kaluuya is one of his generations best actors
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Disclosure – I was invited to a press screening of this film.
Judas and the Black Messiah Review –
There are moments when a film is perfectly timed with what the world is going through, and after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest movement, it was the perfect time to take a look back in time at the Black Panther movement. This film delves into a difficult time and explores the intersection of revolution and government control in America.
So to set the scene, we open in the FBI’s halls as its Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who is railing against a Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) of Chicago who has the power and charisma to unite many of the different anti-government movements across the country. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) is looking for a way to get a mole into the local Black Panther organisation that Hampton leads when William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) falls into his lap after being caught impersonating a federal officer, and now they have their Judas.
I think the first thing people are going to see with this film is the very particular turn of phrase and overall style prevalent in this time. I believe we have become so accustomed to that sort of language being used in comedy or spoofs exploring that time that it is almost tonal whiplash to see them play it completely straight as they do here. What makes this style choice work is that you can see that there is substance behind it and that it is not just being used as a shorthand to locate the film in time and place. Indeed, overall the film has an amazing production value, with all the world being a pitch-perfect recreation of the time. Another thing about the production that I liked was its musical score that was used quite reservedly, but it exploded onto the screen and made you take notice when it was there.
Where this film will be remembered is in its performances because when you sit down to watch Judas and the Black Messiah, you will be getting an acting masterclass from start to finish. Lakeith Stanfield gives the perfect performance as someone who probably got in well over his head and is trying to navigate the problematic place he has found himself in. On the other side of things is Daniel Kaluuya, who I have yet to see put in a bad performance in any film. Daniel has a way with his eyes and mannerisms to bring you into his performance. You end up hanging on every word, and much like Hampton when he speaks, you sit back in this hushed awe of what you are witnessing. One area where you see those performances shine is the many ‘shake-down’ scenes throughout the film.
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield being amazing should not be surprising, nor Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen putting in strong performances. However, something I have not seen discussed as much and something that should be mentioned is the force of power that was Dominique Fishback’s portrayal of Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri). Throughout the film, there were moments of intensity that clearly showed that she could go blow to blow with Hampton, which is where we get some of the emotionally resonant moments in the film and also some of the lighter moments. This was crystallised for me in a scene in a church where you saw her process all the complicated feelings she had for Hampton, and we saw that happen in just the expressions on Dominique’s face. It would then be reinforced in the ending of the film.
Now not everything in the film works as well as the performances. While the film has these high emotional peaks that come at you like a saucepan to the face, there is a lot of downtime between each of those peaks. While you need contrast in the film, and there is the historical nature of someones real-life that affects the narrative’s flow. It does feel like the film is spinning its wheels at times. To add to that, they made an odd decision to have Martin Sheen in full prosthetics to perform J. Edgar Hoover. No one else in the film is doing likewise. This creates a strange, uncanny valley effect that stands out in its oddness. Now, none of these are deal breakers, but they do impact the film.
In the end, do we recommend Judas and the Black Messiah? Of course, we do. Now that is not to say that it is an easy film to watch at times, especially when they say the quiet things out aloud. But every moment is worth it, even those which are full of pain. If you liked Judas and the Black Messiah, we would also recommend to you Queen and Slim.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Judas and the Black Messiah
Directed by – Shaka King
Story by – Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas & Keith Lucas
Screenplay by – Will Berson & Shaka King
Music by –Mark Isham & Craig Harris
Cinematography by – Sean Bobbitt
Edited by – Kristan Sprague
Production/Distribution Companies – MACRO, Participant, Bron Creative, Proximity, Warner Bros. Pictures & Universal Pictures.
Starring – Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, Jermaine Fowler, Dominique Thorne, Robert Longstreet, Terayle Hill, Nicholas Velez, Amari Cheatom & Caleb Eberhardt
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R