Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

Watched in the cinema (10th visit in 2021)

In "Judas and the Black Messiah", the title actually already gives away what will happen in the end. Nevertheless, Shaka King's film sweeps you away because this tragedy, which is unfortunately based on true events, is carried by two sensational leading actors (Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield). What the film fails to achieve with suspense, it more than makes up for with the emotions triggered.

On the surface, "Judas and the Black Messiah" is not what you would call a suspenseful film. What happened to Fred Hampton should be familiar to many, and besides, the film works with a frame story in which William O'Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield, recounts his experiences in the late eighties. So we know what will or will not happen to the two protagonists at the end of the plot - the film title is also quite revealing in this respect.

The intensity therefore does not come from the audience's concern that the main character could be exposed at any time, as in "Donnie Brasco" or "Infernal Affairs". Instead, it comes from the inevitable and the helplessness of the characters to do anything about it. It is a tragedy that could have been written by Shakespeare, but unfortunately happened that way at the end of the sixties.

The film manages to be an undercover story and a portrait of Fred Hampton at the same time, without the narrative flow coming to a standstill. The two main actors play a large part in this. Daniel Kaluuya, whose signing for the role was criticised even before its release because of his British origins, is sensational as Hampton. With his way of speaking and his charisma, the Get Out star pulls every scene to himself, and it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role now.

The complete opposite in terms of acting is Lakeith Stanfield, who embodies O'Neal, who is dirty and manipulated by the FBI. Stanfield likes to express more with his looks than with a thousand words. He doesn't need a scene in which he looks in a mirror and questions his actions aloud. The actor expresses his character's struggle with himself almost in passing. Even in a scene where he smiles proudly, he triggers a sadness in the audience because we see in his eyes that he has a guilty conscience - and moreover, we know what is to come.

Kaluuya and Stanfield are so freaking strong and are optimally supported by Jesse Plemons as the FBI contact and Dominique Fishback as Hampton's girlfriend that the rest of the cast is almost drowned out. When activists are killed or imprisoned, it doesn't pack the same emotional punch as we barely get to know these characters. But the focus on the titular characters was necessary because otherwise the film would have gone on forever. It is also a pity how little Hampton and O'Neal actually talk to each other in the film. There is still some dramatic potential that could have been tickled out.

But that is complaining on a high level. "Judas and the Black Messiah" is a strong piece of cinema that pays homage to Hampton and also reveals (once again) what a terrible bunch the FBI was at the time. More than worth seeing.

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