Daniel Kaluuya should merit Oscar consideration, steals the show in drama about Chicago and American history

By: Steve Pulaski

Set in 1968, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah thrusts us into Chicago, where racial tensions grip the city like a vice. At the tender age of 20, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is the galvanizing Chairman of the Black Panther Party of Illinois, fueled (like many) by the global protests that have taken place all over the world that very year. Hampton runs a grassroots campaign that recruits the young, Black, and frustrated folks in an American city unnerved by the thought of an impending revolution.

Enter William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty crook who impersonates an FBI agent in order to steal cars. When he’s finally nabbed by a real agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), he’s questioned why he uses a badge as opposed to a gun in effort to rob people. “A badge is scarier than a gun,” O’Neal says, knowing the fear it instills in African-Americans who recognize there’s an army lurking behind a man with credentials. Mitchell contracts O’Neal as an informant assigned to infiltrate Hampton’s organization. Initially seeing this as a route to a quick check while avoiding jail, O’Neal becomes conflicted overtime. He fears getting caught at first. Later on, he fears the greater harm he’s doing to a class of people with whom he has a hell of a lot more in common with than the FBI.

King’s titular allegory is a potent one as it anoints Hampton as “the Black Messiah” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) feared as the single greatest threat to national security. That makes O’Neal the “Judas” figure, the one who kissed Jesus while revealing his whereabouts for a generous share of silver. There’s no better way to contextualize these two indispensable men in Chicago and American history, and it’s refreshing that King and Will Berson’s script resists the urge to overplay it.

Context is important with Judas and the Black Messiah, however, albeit in a larger sense. This is a story about a not-so-distant past that works to contextualize the present day, effectively so. It so vividly shows the dangers of a police state where no one is safe, particularly black movements and political organizations. It’s not every year you see a major studio pump out a film with non-conformist, pro-radical text at the forefront. King’s film shoves the idea of peaceful reform aside in favor of an armed revolution. That Judas and the Black Messiah exists and is a laudable distillation of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party of the 1960s is a sign of progress.

This is an urgent work for urgent times, anchored by another thrilling performance from Daniel Kaluuya. The gifted actor, who I’ve grown to love for his reactive expressions and varied performances, embodies Hampton with a strictness not yet seen. He’s stone-faced yet iron-fisted in a role that’s as convincing as any of his previous ones. Kaluuya comes with different energies. He’s a charged speaker as he rallies his party, but lets his ostensibly impenetrable guard down in the presence of his girlfriend, Deborah (Dominique Fishback, Netflix’s Project Power). Deborah doesn’t let his ideas go unchecked, and keeps him stable as a man who will soon become a father and will have a family to think about on top of a revolution. The romance scenes between Hampton and Deborah are lovely yet heartbreaking because we know how they end.

I ultimately wanted more of Fred Hampton and less William O’Neal. Try as LaKeith Stanfield might, he never overcomes an underwritten character. While King and Berson project a consistent feel of unease and torment with O’Neal’s decision-making, we never penetrate his personality quite like we do Hampton, whom you can’t take your eyes off whenever he’s on screen. Worth noting: the film opens with a dramatized reenactment of the only interview O’Neal ever gave (for the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize 2) and closes with a clip from real one. O’Neal committed suicide in 1990, the day the doc aired.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt brings the same kind of elegance in the film’s visuals that he did with Widows, complete with high-levels of saturation that make such attributes as wet pavement and dim interiors pop. It also shows a story that, while taking place in the late sixties, mirrors our present reality. The world doesn’t look and operate a whole lot differently, and that’s the underlying shame of it all. Composers Craig Harris and Mark Isham compliment the presentation nicely with unsettling jazz numbers that signify the cruel fate that ultimately awaits the young and ambitious Hampton.

Shaka King made a minor splash on the indie scene in 2013 with his dramedy Newlyweeds before doing a great deal of TV work after that. Judas and the Black Messiah feels like his artistic manifesto because, misgivings and all, it doesn’t feel tethered to familiar Hollywood framework. It’s a boisterous yet urgent entry in this recent canon of political films that help illustrate the how/why of how we got to this point in America. It continues to feel more and more like the next generation will need a separate history book to articulate what happened in 2020-21 alone.

NOTE: Judas and the Black Messiah will be released theatrically and via HBO Max for 31 days on February 12th.

Grade: B

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