by Ian Morton
Judas and the Black Messiah is exactly the type of film you would expect to see on the run up to the Oscars. Packed with powerhouse performances, this historical drama is a tense overview of events that circulated around an FBI investigation of the Black Panther movement in the late 1960’s and culminated in the death of up and coming activist Fred Hampton.
Based on a true story, the film digs into the atrocities surrounding the assassination of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) as he slept next to his pregnant girlfriend during a raid at his home. At the time, Hampton was beginning to find a voice in the community, fighting for the people and unpegging injustices that impacted every facet of society. Targeted by the FBI and labelled a radical by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (played demonically and in full prosthetics by Martin Sheen), the bureau places informant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) in Hamptons ranks, feeding them data in an attempt to control the situation and eventually neutralise it.
According to the director Shaka King, when the script was first pitched to him, it had taken the form of a crime thriller, much like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and it’s not too hard to see those influences in the final product. The rich textures of the narrative are tense as the drama ramps up on screen despite the fact that you know where the events of the film are leading to. The film plays with your emotions at every step, creating a paranoia that not only hits the characters but also inflicts the audience, bringing to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation but in an immensely contemporary way. The muted colour palette gives the film an essence of noir and sets the tone for the themes it’s trying to explore; flashes of colour contrast beautifully while moments of tension are heightened by the ever threatening presence of what’s on the horizon.
The backbone of the whole experience however is the powerhouse performances of the cast. Daniel Kaluuya doesn’t step a foot out of place in the lead role, absorbing you into the world and overpowering you with the same rhythm and cadence to his voice you would expect to see from a character eloquently labelled a poet. LaKeith Stanfield plays the Judas of the piece and plays the part with the same intensity and complexity Stanfield has brought to almost all other roles he’s played previously. It’s hard to pick the better of the two as they share the screen together, scenes pop with excitement as they stare one another down and the camera lingers for just seconds more than feels comfortable.
Put simply, Judas and the Black Messiah is the best film of the year so far and deserves all the attention it gets come award season. A-class acting combined with seriously complex direction lead to a contemporary take on the genre and more importantly, a look back at a moment in history that deserves to be told.
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