Judas and the Black Messiah review: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield are ‘powerful’

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“You can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution…”

In the late 1960s, petty thief William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) agrees with FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to go undercover as an informant within the Black Panther party and grow close to its charismatic rising star Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

As William gets further entrenched in the politics of the party and Fred’s powerful multicultural Rainbow Coalition for social change, the demands of the FBI grow taller, leading Bill to some unthinkable choices.

While grounding its story in real-life shots of violence from the struggle for civil rights in the opening montage and later with a detailed post-script, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is also an atmospheric and taut thriller examining a galvanised political movement with a powerful figure at its centre.

Darrel Britt-Gibson(left), Daniel Kaluuya (centre, front) and Lakeith Stanfield (far right) in a political confrontation scene from Judas and the Black Messiah
(Image: Glen Wilson/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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The ever-excellent Kaluuya brings majesty, charisma, and intelligence to his turn as Fred Hampton, an incendiary and inspiring political mover, who serves as a credible threat to a system of oppression in the United States.

Opposite Kaluuya is the magnetic Stanfield who truly sells the conflict, fear, and swagger of Bill O’Neal, a figure entrenched in a movement but also in treachery.

Together, the two actors are as formidable duo and it further proves them as two of the most talented young men in front of film cameras today.

It’s a shame that the film does not dwell longer on the relationship between the pair, making the most of the conflict within O’Neal as he betrays a friend and comrade.

Daniel Kaluuya, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Lakeith Stanfield star as Black Panther party members in Judas and the Black Messiah.
(Image: Glen Wilson/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Lakeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons in a tense scene from Judas and the Black Messiah.
(Image: Glen Wilson/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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The cast is also littered with strong supporting performances, with Plemons selling his role as a slippery supposed arm of the law and Martin Sheen turning out a monstrous act as his ruthless boss J. Edgar Hoover from beneath a thick layer of make-up.

However, the other real star act is from the emotionally fine-tuned and nuanced work from Project Power star Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, a poetic figure who supports the Black Panther movement and who provides romance for Fred Hampton.

As the political manoeuvres of the Black Panther movement provide gripping viewing on their own, the insidious scheming of the FBI adds a true sense of dread to proceedings as the horrors of systemic racism are laid bare.

Lakeith Stanfield (front) and Daniel Kaluuya (back) appear in Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah.
(Image: Glen Wilson/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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The cinematography from Sean Bobbitt is simultaneously grand and gorgeous, yet claustrophobic and intimate, adding to the power of the performances.

As violence and anger flare up as the narrative builds towards a bloody climax, the work of director Shaka King truly comes alive, delivering a dark, furious, but necessary historical study.

Ultimately, while not perfect, Judas and the Black Messiah features excellent performances and some gripping sequences that make it a propulsive historical thriller.

Verdict

Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful and gripping historical thriller that boasts fiery turns from both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield.

Judas and the Black Messiah premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2021 and will be released in the UK on February 26, 2021.

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