There’s an electric rhythm at the sensory heart of Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. A tangible frisson of galvanic energy. It is, by the film’s own omission, ‘the beat that manifests in you’. Here is a civil rights powerhouse that needs not just to be seen but to be heard. To be lived and to be left livid. Through the bedazzlement of King’s masterful choreography and the triumphs of his exquisite cast, a reminder harkens. This isn’t over. Don’t you forget it.
From a career quietly launched on British television to the international fame he found in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya reaches new heights in Judas. He plays Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers and the film’s would be ‘black messiah’. Or so prophesies Martin Sheen’s J. Edgar Hoover in an effective and heavily made up cameo. Kaluuya quickly establishes a bulky and effortlessly charismatic foil to Hoover’s skittish and racially charged FBI. He commands his scenes and it’s a true testament to the actor’s skill that he proves able to pull off King’s complex shifts in tone and character. Here is a man who roars to a crowd – ‘I am a revolutionary!’ – but squirms endearingly in the face of love. ‘I did not expect you to be so shy’ says Dominique Fishback’s Deborah Johnson in one particularly tender sequence. King handles these well throughout. His will to ebb and flow exposes a human truth that hammers home grim realities more effectively than brute force could achieve.
If King, and co-writer Will Berson, name Hampton their Black Messiah, Lakeith Stanfield is his Judas. Or, rather, it is William O’Neal – whom Stanfield impressively and wholly embodies – that will betray Hampton. O’Neal was but a petty criminal, hijacking cars and impersonating federal officers, when his arrest effectively sealed Hampton’s tragic fate. Offered a role as informer for the FBI, as opposed to a six and a half year spell in prison, O’Neal goes undercover among the Panthers and rises fast. It’s not long – in the film at least – before he’s the Chicago chapter’s head of security. A final note reminds that he was but a teenager at the time.
Armed with an impressive track record of his own, Stanfield is, here, exceptional. It is rare for an actor to so sublimely convey the interior dimensions of a role as the Blindspotting breakout does here. And with so little physical expression. Stanfield makes it look effortless. That the script from which he works is so adroitly crafted – ‘a badge is scarier than a gun’ – is hardly a hindrance but Stanfield brings so much more to play than King and Berson could have written. There’s the moments of terse laughter that belie the character of a man who cannot believe his own success in fooling the Panthers. Or the slight twitch of an eye that wordlessly conveys and world of internal horror. This will only escalate as the final betrayal looms. O’Neal’s ark in the film may well be predetermined but Stanfield does well to imbue his trajectory with a real sense for the uncertainty of a pointedly spontaneous present.
Such is viscerally achieved in all aspects of the feature. Not least in themes that echo very prominently to our own day and age. Producers Kenny and Keith Lucas first pitched a Fred Hampton biopic way back in 2014 and it’s easy to see how six years of devastation and the Black Lives Matter movement have influenced King’s final film. Black Panther and Creed auteur Ryan Coogler is a producer here and it shows. Judas and the Black Messiah boasts sensory creativity in abundance and there’s more than a hint of Scorsese flair both in the jazz infused score of Mark Isham and Craig Harris and the free flowing camerawork of King and his director of photography Sean Bobbitt. It recalls too Chazelle’s Whiplash or Iñárritu’s Birdman. Frame by frame, the film is stunning.
The close comes at an alarming pace. So engrossing is all preceding that two hours really do fly by. In its final beats, Judas and the Black Messiah hammers home the inevitable with impact enough to far outlive the credits. Here is a confident, powerful drama for the ages. The acting is superb, the writing on point and the cinematic construction faultless. It deserves to be seen. Nay, it demands it. Heed the call, seek it out.