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Film Review: Judas & the Black Messiah

by A.R. Solar

Writer/director Shaka King (Newlyweeds [2013]) boldly avoids the sophomore slump with his ambitious and accomplished second feature. Judas & the Black Messiah, based on real events, is a big movie in several ways. In it, King depicts the dynamic rise (and eventual demise) of the Illinois Black Panther Party and its fervent chairman, Fred Hampton, in the 1970s.

Hampton managed to, among other things, bring together disparate sides of the Chicago slums—even a White people’s club—to address the needs of the community. Among those needs are ones that still exist today, of course. Putting an end to police abuse and corruption. Providing food and education to needy youths. Director King seamlessly weaves all these many elements and stories into a cohesive, taut historical thriller.

Maybe even more impressive are the performances of Daniel Kaluuya (as Hampton) and LaKeith Stanfield (as car-thief-turned-FBI-informant William O’Neal). The latter is a complex, often-conflicted personality that Stanfield embodies with aplomb. In a scene where Hampton waits like a coiled king cobra for his introduction on stage, Kaluuya plays him with the perfect swagger, beautifully inhabiting the role. He’s a treat to watch. 

Creative editing gives the film greater grit and provides ballast for Sean Bobbit’s slick cinematography. Here we see how slick doesn’t necessarily mean glossy, as the director and his production design team have chosen a muted palette of pastels and earth tones, for day shots, and long-shadowy blacks-on-black for night. 

But it’s neo-noir sans nostalgia (Sin City [2005], this is not). Judas & the Black Messiah’s story and action pack wallops more akin to Scorsese circa The Departed (2006). It would have made a good crime movie or an excellent historical biography—lucky for us, it’s both.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.