Film Review: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

A pair of barnstorming performances from Laketh Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya keeps Judas and the Black Messiah a fascinating story to watch

“Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed”

There’s an interesting tension at the heart of Judas and the Black Messiah, as its two subjects tussle for attention in a film which tries to do them both justice. Not knowing any of the history behind this obviously affects my view but I was left wanting a deeper dive into one or the other of these striking characters.

Shaka King’s film is a biographical account of the betrayal of Fred Hampton by William O’Neal, the former the head of the Chicago-based chapters of the Black Panthers, the latter an FBI informant who has infiltrated the group at the behest of a determined handler. And in Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield hands, it is ferociously well acted.

Their dual paths are vividly contrasted. Kaluuya’s Hampton’s public persona as a spellbinding orator and the tenderer side shown in his burgeoning relationship with Dominique Fishback’s Deborah (a less flashy but no less vital performance). And Stanfield’s O’Neal dealing with his conflicted nature as he’s seduced by Hampton’s message just as much as the perceived status and trappings offered by the FBI.

The first half of the movie is straight-up excellent, plunging us directly into this world and nailing a real depth of feeling. But in an overlong second act, too many subplots and secondary characters detract from the focus of an already split narrative and so it doesn’t quite have the killer punch. What does, is the revelations held in the postscripts which instantly had me wanting to discover even more about these events. 

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