JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021)

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton
  • Release Date: 05/03/2021
  • Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
  • Director: Shaka King

Driven by phenomenal performances, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ leaves a resounding impact

One shouldn’t give away the plot of a film in its title. When you call your film “Judas and the Black Messiah” you are practically telling your audience that in your film, the Black Messiah, Fred Hampton would be betrayed by the Judas, Bill O’Neal leading to his execution. No matter what path the story takes thereafter it is certain to end in the aforementioned fashion and hence you are draining any sense of surprise or tension from your story. I believe in America, the story of Fred Hampton must be well known to all but in India, I hadn’t heard of him or Bill O’Neal. Thus if the title wasn’t so self-explanatory, I would have experienced edge-of-the-seat thrills since I would not have known how the story would culminate. When you drain your film of the element of surprise and tension, you must ensure that the performances and the interpersonal drama takes over and controls the attention of the viewers.

Thankfully, the film is marked by some of the most investing and stunning performances of the year. Daniel Kaluuya, the man you must remember from the hauntingly well-made horror film Get Out plays Fred Hampton. He is a young Black Panther Leader who is as revolutionary in his thoughts as he is selfless in his actions. He is someone who is not afraid to walk into a rival party’s territory unarmed and speak face to face with its not-so-welcoming leader. He is gutsy enough to bring together the southern confederacy-leaning conservatives on his side by uniting them against one common enemy, the police. Yet he is someone who finds it excruciatingly difficult to make the first move on a woman who is giving him ample reasons to believe that she is interested in him and wants him to make the first move.

Daniel Kaluuya brings an organic charm and authenticity to many of the sequences that otherwise would have fallen flat had they not been executed with such panache and believability. The sequence towards the end of the film where we see him sitting in the kitchen of one of the fallen Panther’s mother and speaking with her about what he would do to restore the legacy of the much-maligned fallen panther is one of the best in the film. The discussion starts from idle chit-chat and reminiscing memories of the Panther when he was a kid and gradually grows into an emotional avalanche as his mother speaks her heart about how good her son was and how, what he did, in the end, was not all that he had ever done. The way in which Kaluuya is shown listening to her and reacting in his own way was one of the high points of his performance and shows how well he has done to infuse a sense of realism and true emotions in his essay.

LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal

Another scene that grabbed my attention was one when Kaluuya is shown to react to how a fellow inmate was being treated in jail. He doesn’t speak a word but just looks at him and his eyes say it all. His interactions with his paramour, Deborah (Dominique Fishback) are rich in drama and brimming with romantic energy. It’s interesting to see how Kaluuya remains mostly quiet in her presence and lets her do most of the talking. Coming from someone who is known for his oratory skills, this aspect of the rendition of the character feels refreshingly different. His camaraderie with the other Panthers and especially Bill O’Neal who he gradually starts influencing with his fiery thoughts and selfless ways is another highlight of Kaluuya’s performance. His stellar performance has earned Daniel Kaluuya a nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category at the 93rd Oscars 2021.

LaKeith Stanfield has earned a nomination in the same category for his portrayal of Bill O’Neal. In many ways, he has to portray a character that is a lot more dense and complicated than Fred Hampton’s. Bill is someone who has been arrested by Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), an FBI agent for boosting a car and is forced into being a rat in the Black Panthers party in return for not being incarcerated for his brush with the law. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult for Bill to do Roy’s bidding as he develops genuine reverence and support for Fred Hampton and all that he is doing. This conflict is portrayed exceptionally well by LaKeith Stanfield throughout his essay. He is so real and heartbreaking in his essay that it becomes impossible to zero in on how to feel about his character.

He is the one who poisons Hampton in the end. He also draws a picture of the layout of his house for the FBI to take down the man and his comrades. Yet when he meets Roy for the last time in the film, one can see the impact that his decisions have had on him. He is given a legitimate life and rewards for his service to the FBI but we can see from his rendition of the character at that moment that it all means nothing to him anymore and that he is in a personal hell of his own for betraying the man he admired and loved. Fear and shame intertwine in his rendition of the moment and it is one of the most heartbreaking sequences of the entire film.

Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell

Jesse Plemons does a fantastic job with his character of Roy Mitchell. The depths of his performance can be judged by a sequence where we see him react to J. Edgar Hoover who is questioning him on how he would react if his infant daughter would bring home a Negro boyfriend when she grows up. He also renders his inner conflicts of what he is doing and the legitimacy of it all beautifully in some of the other sequences.

Judas and the Black Messiah is exquisite to look at. Its cinematography puts the viewer in the period and coupled with the authentic and catchy costume design and the overall design of the film, it invokes all that was the best in the era that the film is set in. The cinematography transformed the locations into a living breathing entity and made it an integral part of the film’s narrative. I also liked the few action sequences that the film had on offer. These sequences were not just heartbreaking but had a lot of grit and physicality associated with it that made it effective.

Judas and the Black Messiah is an important film that brings to the fore a story that is more relevant in today’s time than it was ever before. The fact that the makers pull no punches and are honest enough to portray the Panthers in all their eccentricities makes the film even more authentic. The focus still will be on the performances and setting of the film and while it is a lot less dense and thrilling than some of the previous films of this genre, it is sure a lot more dramatic and depends a lot more on its characters and interpersonal drama to leave a lasting impression. For that and a lot more, the film has been nominated for the Best Picture category at the 93rd Oscars 2021.

Rating: 3.5/5 (3.5 out of 5 Stars)

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