Judas and the Black Messiah Movie Review
Warner Bros.’ heavyweight Oscar contender Judas and the Black Messiah was well worth the wait, even if it’s no second coming of Christ. Though not as powerful as it could have been, the movie nonetheless thrives on the absolutely riveting performances by Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, and the rest of the cast.
Judas follows the passionate and charismatic Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and William O’Neal, the faction’s security head who also acted as an FBI informant, whose betrayal ultimately led to Hampton’s death.
Kaluuya delivers what is easily one of the best performances of the elongated 2020 Oscar year, a transformative turn as Hampton. It’s the kind of acting that just leaves your jaw on the floor, his sincere devotion to the role, his absolute immersion in it breathtaking.
Though his Get Out co-star’s performance isn’t as outwardly spellbinding, Stanfield gives an emotional, complex, and ultimately tortured performance, portraying a man whose allegiances are consistently at odds.
Beyond the acting, Judas and the Black Messiah tells a compelling story, even if it isn’t consistently impactful. Director Shaka King, whose only other feature-length work is the 2013 limited release Newlyweeds, bites off a little more than he can chew, though the film still operates on a grand scale that is consistently engaging, if not always enthralling. Judas attempts to explore Hampton as an individual, portray the Black Panthers in a way they often haven’t been portrayed (as a group of sincere people fighting for justice, though not without faults), and follow the FBI’s investigation, or rather their attempts to take down Hampton and the Black Panthers simply for the perceived threat they pose to White America.
Though perhaps a bad comparison, the film hints at similarities to the fictional The Departed (and in turn its source material Infernal Affairs), as the movie seeks to interweave two competing forces, neither insidious but with clear and opposing motives. At times it’s hard to tell what kind of movie Shaka wanted to make; the investigation seems to take center stage at times, but he never fully commits to it, at times distracted and awed by Kaluuya’s devotion to his character.
Judas the Black Messiah nonetheless juggles its various elements well; it simply doesn’t bring them together in the perfect package. It comes close at times, though, and audiences would be bereft of a worthy experience should they skip what is sure to be an awards beast.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.