Recounting the shocking story of Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton’s (Daniel Kaluuya) last days and his betrayal at the hands of petty thief turned Panther member and FBI informant William O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield). We experience the conflict between the Chicago police force and the besieged panthers, the injustices that push them further and further into lawlessness, and the impact on the lives of the people caught in crossfire. But we also experience the power of Hampton’s words and vision and the threat he truly posed to the institutions that sought to fight against equality and change.
The film balances it’s obligations as a Fred Hampton Biopic and a gripping crime thriller perfectly. Our time is divided between the titular Judas and Messiah. Daniel Kaluuya steals the show with his immense performance. He walks on stage with the weight of history on his shoulders and he speaks with charisma that is impossible to resist. In his quiet moments the vulnerability that made him so compelling in Get Out is once again utterly absorbing.
Opposite him is Stanfield, who beautifully realises a man at war with himself. Completely magnanimous and fascinatingly complex, he navigates every scene with a nervous energy that makes the character unpredictable and captivating. The two men bring gravitas to the biopic aspects of this film, discovering an authentic truth within the men that brings this very important history to life. There’s so much raw humanity on display, it’s impossible not to be swept away by the genre.
In addition to being an expertly rendered human drama, the film is also a compelling thriller. The action sequences are powerful and there’s a superb feeling of dread that builds throughout. If it occasionally feels like an action film in a Michael Mann style, the terrible night that the story is building towards is presented as nothing less than a execution and a terrifying miscarriage of justice. The America this film portrays is never less than terrifying, even when it is breathtakingly exciting.
As a period piece, the world of the film feels authentic and complete. It’s an environment of dark alleys and run down meeting halls. Anything beautiful constructed by the group is destroyed, but can be built again. As a shocking portrait of a racist society enforced by a zealous police force, this couldn’t be any more timely. The clandestine forces that enact the policies that make pawns of desperate men and martyrs of great ones are portrayed a banal evil. O’neil’s handler doesn’t hate the people he’s using and slaughtering, he just doesn’t care enough to resist a tide of apathy and hate.
Judas and the Black Messiah is an elegiac masterpiece. It’s a powerful rumination on lives lost and voices silent, and a forceful demonstration of legacy and the strength of resistance. Cinematically it works as fascinating character study and brilliant historical drama. Director Shaka King has emerged as a talent to watch as a director of actors and action. This is truly the first great film of 2021.