REVIEW: Judas and the Black Messiah

As this is a review for Judas and the Black Messiah, you’d expect me to, well, review Judas and the Black Messiah, wouldn’t you?

I will get to that – don’t immediately click off of this page. But first, I need to review my WiFi provider, as I had to furiously sweat it out, as my screening link for Judas and the Black Messiah buffered every six seconds, making this two hour film last an extra three hours.

And because of that, I apologise if I have missed any moments in the film, as I gazed upon a spinning wheel indicating that the next two minutes of film were loading.

Now, back to the review of the actual film.

Heading into Judas and the Black Messiah, I didn’t know really that much about the Black Panthers at all. I didn’t know of the film’s real-life focus, Fred Hampton, or his soon-to-be murderer, Bill O’Neal. But since, this film has sparked such an interest; a desire to Google every single moment and detail about this story, in a very much-needed period of time.

I could wax lyrical for hours about this film – from the performances to the cinematography to the music – and, well, as this is a critique of the film, I probably will do that.

Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Fred Hampton, the enthusiastic, idolised Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, but – rather interestingly – it isn’t told from his perspective, but from the view of an FBI informant, Bill O’Neal, who goes on to betray Fred.

The film opens with Bill attempting to steal a car, only to be arrested and used as an FBI informant to infiltrate the Black Panthers. As Bill gets involved deeper with the Black Panthers Party, the film becomes more tense, giving me serious Uncut Gems vibes. During one scene, he is grilled about how he got his car; lying that he hot-wired it, instead of being issued it by the police, and Bill even comes face-to-face with someone who was at the scene of the first car he stole. To say my hands were clammy by the end of this was an understatement, and I don’t think it’s just the eczema.

It’s a testament to how flawlessly LaKeith Stanfield portrayed Bill that makes these moments so difficult to watch. Even though he was betraying Fred throughout the entirety of the film, you’d be forgiven for feeling sorry for him. LaKeith’s performance was incredible – with every trembling hand and lip quiver, you could see the fear of getting caught. And when he did feel like he’d gotten away with the next part of his plan, you’d notice subtle smirks from him as he’d drive away. In fact, at the end of the film, we see the real Bill O’Neal – filmed for a documentary based on these events – and it’s difficult to identify who’s who; LaKeith even mimicked such minor details, such as Bill’s eyes flicking to the side on occasions.

Of course, you cannot praise an acting performance without mentioning Daniel Kaluuya. Sometimes, I rave about his acting in films he’s not even in. He was great in Over the Hedge, Blades of Glory and The Grand Budapest Hotel, wasn’t he?

I was amazed by his performance in Get Out – to think, prior to that, he was just the dopey one from Skins, and, more iconically, Parking Pataweyo (Google it.) But in Judas and the Black Messiah, Daniel just transforms into a whole different human. From the first time we see him on screen, you don’t recognise Daniel; from his posture to the gravelly voice – it’s not Daniel; it is Fred. The scenes were Daniel addresses his following are so passionate and rousing enough for the Academy Award win alone.

It’s because of their incredible performances that I was actually a little let down to not see them together enough. They do share most of their time on the screen together; don’t get me wrong. But I wanted more from their relationship. LaKeith’s William enters the Black Panther Party as an unknown; people initially do not trust him, but he quickly becomes Fred’s driver, and soon his head-of-security. We don’t really see the connection between the two; what made Fred trust Bill so much. There’s only one moment where there seems to be an emotional connection; following Fred returning from jail, as he sees Bill has helped restore their HQ from a fire. That’s it. That was the only time I felt a bond between the two; I just wanted more of that.

(And before you come at me with “SPOILER ALERT!!!!!”, just know this was a real story. That’s like me saying that the Titanic sank.)

Everything about Judas and the Black Messiah was gorgeous. It is shot beautifully; from the lengthy one-camera shots at the beginning, to the picture-perfect recreations of the documentary. And it sounds amazing too. The soundtrack is powerful, and so fitting for the film.

And, if great visuals, a killer soundtrack and sublime performances don’t do it for you, know that Jesse Plemons is in it. You know shit’s about to go down when this little git appears.

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