‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Review

Yezen Saadah, Santa Fe Staff Writer

Amidst the social and economic circumstances as of late, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is the movie we need right now.  Not only is it a showstopping second feature film by King (Newlyweeds), but it’s also very accessible through HBO Max, allowing for audiences to experience this hidden gem of a film at the beginning of 2021. This simultaneously cements HBO Max as the streaming service for new and upcoming releases.

Judas and the Black Messiah tells the true story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party during the late 1960s, and of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant. The sequences of events that took place were powerful yet devastating. The pacing is perfect; the film’s scenes start and end exactly when they need to. It was two hours long and it felt like an hour had passed. 

Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Fred Hampton is by far his best and easily one of the most captivating to watch right now. What separates Kaluuya from other actors is just how much emotion he can convey with his eyes alone. Whenever he commands the scene, you cannot take your eyes off of him. He is truly an outstanding performer and I cannot wait to see him take on more roles like this. Lakeith Stanfield offers an extremely human and genuine performance as Bill O’Neal and this is explored further through his interactions with Jesse Plemons’ Roy Mitchell, making for emotionally conflicting scenes between the two fantastic actors. The performances are easily the best part of the film and make it stand out among others of the same subject; viewers can actually feel something from these characters, their decisions, and their circumstances. Bill’s inevitable betrayal and Hampton’s assassination are what correlates to the biblical allusion the title of the film is alluding to, which is immensely clever.

Sean Bobbitt’s visually stunning cinematography captured the time period of the late 1960s and made every aspect of the film feel realistic. Similar to his work on 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen), Bobbitt’s use of lighting matches the tone and environment of the scenes to near perfection. This can also be said regarding the music and sound design within the film, especially during intense and powerful moments. 

Despite the film’s overwhelming amount of achievements, it is no masterpiece. There are definitely a few cheesy elements regarding the music choices and caricatures that ultimately hinder the experience that is, for the most part, very real and genuine; however, in face of what the film gets unbelievably right, these are but minor issues. 

Judas and the Black Messiah was what I was hoping for from films such as BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin). Rather than feeling exaggerated or romanticized, everything feels grounded, real, and impactful for both the audience and the characters. This is Shaka King’s second feature film and it was so brilliantly made to where I cannot wait to see how he grows as a filmmaker. A fantastic work of acting performances and visual storytelling that is a must-watch for film lovers and history buffs alike. This may be too early to call it, but this might just be my favorite film of the year.

Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars