Theo’s review published on Letterboxd:
There’s a precision tooled efficiency to the structure of Judas and The Black Messiah, an electrifying speed and cohesiveness to the tragic events that take place, the events alone as compelling as they are they are complex which director Shaka King is not afraid to shy away from. Beneath all the pristinely lit shots and acutely structured layout is where it falters too, outpacing the writing and characterisation of each scene, leaving it nice looking and enthralling, but otherwise shallow beneath the theatrics and timid to delve any further.
Kaluuya is a pugilistic force, his basilisk stare and domineering presence chewing up each scene he’s in, even Stanfield’s O’Neal is left in his wake. Kaluuya certifies his commanding presence as Hampton, although playing a 21 year old while being (and looking) 30 years old slightly diminishes the tragedy. Stanfield gives a valiant performance but he’s nowhere near his A-Game, while his O’Neal is dealt a poor hand being left too much of a mystery and not enough of a character. I appreciate they were trying to make him out to be this ominous figure with ambiguous morals and motives, by doing that though he’s left rather half-baked to the extent of being almost insincere, his internal conflict too vague and understated, despite Stanfields best efforts to elicit some depth to him.
It’s sometimes as if there’s an unspoken gap between Stanfield’s O’Neal and Kaluuya’s Hampton, both together in scenes but rarely in the same shot. They’re left frustratingly distant, as if Shaka King were intimidated by their presence and timid to let their performances overshadow his work. Despite their screentime it often feels as if they’re both subsided in his story, purely as means for the narrative and abrasively unexplored emotionally.
The film itself is perfectly decent, a bit too reliant on O’Neal’s dealings with the FBI, leaving not much else of a narrative or characters fleshed out, but it’s tightly packed and zips by, with more than ample entertainment (albeit for a film that shouldn’t really be entertaining), and strong performances across the board. I was just left disenchanted, hooked as I was watching but a bit empty when it was over. A great film is in here, somewhere, it’s just too apprehensive to show itself, a box-full of brilliant tools but only some utilised and the others disregarded. Shaka King is no revolutionary yet.