2021 Sundance Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

Director(s): Shaka King

Writer(s): Will Bernson, Shaka King, Keith Lucas

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakieth Stanfield, Dominique Fishback

Synopsis: The story of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his fateful betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal.

You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder a liberation. You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution. You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom.

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) belted these words that didn’t just ring through an entire Church, but to any and every person he came in contact with. This 21-year-old kid could enter into any situation and find the calming medium with any group he came across.

Daniel Kaluuya played Fred brilliantly and demanded the attention of anyone he came in contact with. Whether it be a rival gang or a group of rednecks, Fred got people to listen to what he was saying. And Daniel Kaluuya was mesmerizing to watch. Speaking with so much promise in his voice, I cannot remember a time where Fred was speaking to a group of people, or on a sort of “mission” that he ever once stuttered. There was assurance in his voice that was easily identifiable as someone who completely believed what he was saying. A scene early on in the film showed Hampton and some of the other Panthers going to speak to a redneck Church. You can feel the contempt that the rednecks had for Hampton, but he doesn’t only calm them down, he empowers them as well in the same way he empowered everyone else.

As William “Bill” O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield) put it to Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons), referencing the previous scene, Fred could “sell salt to a snail.” Cause that’s all Fred really was, was a salesman. He wasn’t a King or even a Messiah, he was a kid with a beautiful dream of freedom for him and his people, and he wanted to sell that dream to anyone he knew. He spoke loud and spoke boldly, and this was reciprocated with the people who truly believed in what he was trying to say, but he was also able to speak soft and direct and touch people as well. He knew who he was dealing with at all times, and could change on a dime to fit the situation. He knew was a leader in every stretch of the word as he knew when to lead with words, and when to lead with power. As his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) pointed out, he was a poet that could always project his vision through words. For Kaluuya, he embodied everything this person was and was able to portray it on screen. It was a completely filled-out performance that provided power and grace. He was great in his louder moments, but I think he was even better in the few vulnerable moments we got to see him in as well.

Which in his moments of questioning, Johnson stood over him like a guardian watching over him, convincing him everything will be okay. She lit the way when Fred seemed lost and was what I believe allowed Fred to be so grounded. He knew his moment and he knew his place, but he also knew that Deborah was behind him every step of the way. Fishback is brilliant in this film and definitely deserves as much recognition as the rest of the cast. She is that light and that guardian for Fred, and physically and metaphorically tries to shield him from any danger. In one of the more tender moments of the film, Fishback delivers a monologue that strikes through you with the same grace and power that Kaluuya has when he speaks.

On the other side of Fred’s assertive speech, we have Bill, who isn’t sure of himself at any moment of the film. Where I couldn’t remember a time that Kaluuya stuttered in his speech, Stanfield did it at every moment. Doing a job for the FBI, Hampton sold himself to two opposing groups. One group offered him money, while another offered him something so much more than materialistic goods. By working as an informant for the FBI, he was able to get and do anything he wanted, but Stanfield was always able to show you this feeling of regret that loomed over Bill throughout the movie. I don’t think this is Lakeith Stanfield’s best role, but it further proves him as one of the best working actors today.

What helped the performances be as good as they were was the direction from Shaka King. He, with the help of Sean Bobbitt’s masterful camera work, was able to capture a moment that was so tense and frightening, but also engrossing to the viewer at home. It is thrilling and powerful work that gives you the chance to invest yourself in these characters and their lives. He gave each moment the time he needed and had few low points throughout. After Kaluuya goes to jail, the film slows down a bit, but King is able to keep the viewer engaged and aware even in these slower moments. It was just a truly wonderful job.

You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution“. The FBI murdered Fred Hampton in his home in 1969 hoping the revolution would be over, but they must not have really listened to his speech, because even today the revolution is still being fought.

Final: Judas and the Black Messiah is a deeply powerful, moving, and engrossing film. Kaluuya and Fishback give their best performances, as Stanfield continues to prove himself as one of Hollywood’s best actors. A timely film that is as tense as it is emotional. You can’t murder a revolution.

Grade: B+

2021 Sundance Coverage

2021 Film Rankings

Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.

Created by Kenzie Vanunu, leader of the JATBM Twitter Oscar Campaign (@/kenzvanunu)

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