Fat Dude Digs Flicks’s review published on Letterboxd:
Movies 2021 - 32. Judas and the Black Messiah (2020; written by Will Berson and Shaka King; directed by Shaka King)
🌮🌮🌮🌮 (4 tacos)
A low level criminal is forced by the FBI to gain intelligence against the Black Panther Party. Judas and the Black Messiah is a battering ram to the doors of American cinema. This is for a multitude of reasons, of course. From the story itself, to the strength of its cast, to the introduction of a powerful new voice in filmmaking, Judas and the Black Messiah is a movie that grabs its audience by the lapels and forces them to look back at a period of racial injustice that does not feel as far away as 50 years should.
Shaka King’s film stars LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, a criminal picked up by the FBI when a car theft goes awry. He can face jail time or help the bureau bring down Fred Hampton, a rising voice against oppression in the Black Panther’s fight. Hampton is played by Daniel Kaluuya, a name growing more and more familiar with audiences, and gaining prestige along the way. His Hampton is a powerful presence, delivering persuasive speeches and uniting those who feel cast aside by a world in which they have no power. Hampton can be a storm, personifying both the calm and the torrents, in his quest for justice and equality. Every step along the way, he faces more and more obstacles, often caused by O’Neal’s betrayal, until his eventual dance with his historical fate.
Judas and the Black Messiah works so incredibly well because of its powerful cast. Stanfield and Kaluuya are the driving force behind this movie. Kaluuya is an actor I can sing the praises of for days. If this film doesn’t win him his Oscar, he will earn opportunity after opportunity from this point forward. He has a gift for this field and only gets better with each performance. He can command attention with his vocalized strength, but can do it just as well with a whisper and a cock of the head. Stanfield is another actor who can only boost forward from this. His primary emotion is torment. You can feel the weight of the pressure he is under on his shoulders the entire film. O’Neal is actively betraying the men he is standing alongside on a daily basis, and yet, the audience still feels a sense of empathy for all the anguish he endures. You’re angry with him, but it’s almost a piteous anger.
Kaluuya and Stanfield aren’t alone in the film. The supporting cast is also phenomenal. I don’t know where Dominique Fishback came from, but she will no doubt have a great career in front of her. Fishback plays Hampton’s love interest and she is beyond phenomenal. It isn’t so much that she is the emotional core as there are so many tertiary characters that contribute to the emotional storytelling of the film, but there is something about just how she conveys her emotions. Your heart breaks for her on this journey, but at the same time, she exudes strength. Jesse Plemmons continues his upward thrust as a great supporting actor in excellent movies. Looking back on Friday Night Lights, I’m not sure I would have expected Plemmons to be one of the top three dramatic actors to come out of that cast, but he absolutely is.
The true heartbreak of Judas and the Black Messiah is that the relevance of its message continues to ring true today. There is still a fight for equality, civil rights, and justice. Manipulation and violence are still used as a tools to silence those who fight. The foul stench of racism, be it systemic or through blatant verbal or physical attacks, continues to waft its way through our nation. Hopefully seeing something like Judas and the Black Messiah will serve as a motive to keep fighting and to keep marching. It certainly deserves to as something special. And although the film ultimately is a tragedy on loss and the impact of guilt, there still a sense of triumph in remembrance.