Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★½

Revolutionary black activist Fred Hampton emerges with a well-rounded portrayal by Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah, a biographical drama directed by Shaka King. He proves himself nimbly up the challenge of assuming the responsibility of embodying Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and the cacodemon of J. Edgar Hoover's nightmares. 

Kaluuya's abilities help ground the film in conveying the revolutionary socialist as a man of brilliance and vision fighting to keep a dream alive; providing a lived-in portrayal of a man who was not above being prone to act impulsively. Lakeith Stanfield is equally mesmerising, delivering an intelligent and unguarded performance as William O'Neal, a career criminal that, after the FBI offers a plea deal, infiltrates the Party to gather intelligence on Hampton. Stanfield portrays him as an anxious man always on the verge of being uncovered, but equally as a criminal appreciating a fraction of white recognition. 

Will Berson and Shaka King's screenplay keep things rather conventional. While the first act launches the characters with customary routines, including a somewhat contrived moment in which a former victim of O'Neal recognises him, it avoids reducing O'Neal into either an utter tragic figure or absolute villain; additionally employing him as a narrative apparatus into the movement. 

Sean Bobbitt's cinematography, who deservedly won multiple accolades for his work on 12 Years a Slave, provides grimness and authenticity to the locations as King carefully fits the pieces together to create an intricate configuration of characters. Dominique Fishback's portrayal of Deborah Johnson is a stunning addition to the cast, and her budding romance with Hampton adds significant weight to the tragedy. It's a timely release, and even though the events depicted occur in the late nineteen sixties many of its issues are still in play as hot topics today.  

With the all too short runtime of two hours, there's little time to fully cover the sprawling sociopolitical context and the large cast of characters carefully, but what makes it all come together is the acting, particularly the relationship between Hampton and O'Neal. Judas and the Black Messiah is a story of epic betrayal that resulted in the murdered of Hampton during a police raid on 4th December 1969 when he was just 21 years of age.

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