Judas and the Black Messiah
by Hope Madden
Daniel Kaluuya’s range is simply unreal. From the vulnerable hero of Get Out to the chilling sociopath of Widows, he’s prepared us for quite a gamut of characters. I’m not sure he’s prepared us for his Chairman, though.
Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party circa 1969, in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. A feeling of mortality permeates his performance, and with it a melancholy sense of urgency. His quiet moments swell with tenderness and turmoil, and his speeches burn through the screen. We’ve seen some great performances this year, but we’d give Kaluuya the Oscar right now.
That’s a lot to live up to, but the balance of King’s cast meets the task. LaKeith Stanfield, as police informant Bill O’Neal, strikes the right balance between cowardice and regret. He doesn’t try to make us pity O’Neal and the deal he’s struck with the devil, but he gives the character an energy that suggests more emotional and psychological layers than what’s found on the page.
As FBI Agent Roy Mitchell, Jesse Plemons is as solid as ever, delivering lines with enough genuineness that Mitchell doesn’t become an outright villain until he, along with O’Neal, have gone too far to pretend they’re anything else.
Their performances draw support from an understated Dominique Fishback as a firmly but not blindly committed comrade—Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson. Meanwhile, Dominique Thorne has badassedness to burn as part of a deep ensemble that impresses in most every turn.
The film never feels like a biopic. The rendering is far more crime thriller, and had this been a simple fictional account of a mole in a political organization, King’s film would have been riveting. Performances alone would have elevated the genre beats.
The real star may be King’s script, co-written with Will Berson and Keith and Kenneth Lucas. There’s no placating. There’s no playing to the masses. King doesn’t water down Hampton’s message of unifying the poor or throwing off the oppression of a police state. In fact, this is a film that means to show the difference between revolution and the “candy coated façade of gradual reform.”