There is so much to say here
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021)
Judas and the Black Messiah is a film I have been excited about for a while, like "counting down the days until it comes out" excited. The two main characters, played by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield who are two of my favorite actors working today, so I especially could not wait to see them on screen together again! I have also been fascinated with the history of the Black Panthers for a while now, after listening to a podcast episode about the organization. There were a lot of things I was never taught about the Black Panthers, and I was glad to see some of those things in the film; like how free school lunch programs exist because of the Black Panther Party.
Shaka King without a doubt has knocked it out of the park with his first major feature film directorial debut. King has a few director credit episodes of Hulu’s Shrill to his name (highly recommend, by the way) and a number of short films, too. This is a world apart from Shrill. The pace of a film is one of the most important aspects to keep an audience engaged, due to its strong direction, this film is paced with an even and strong tempo.
My only nit-picky complaint is at the very end and how heavily the film relied on text-on-screen to tie up the narrative. I love when a film gives you the “where are you now” lines through text, but this was just a bit excessive. I found myself wishing they had intercut more historic footage in these moments, as that could have made it even more impactful, serving as a book-end to accompany the strong montage opening of the film.
The opening is powerful, a montage of historical footage that sets the scene of Chicago in the 1960s and defines the Black Panther Party. The leader of the Illinois chapter, Chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) is an activist, dedicated to recruiting and fighting for justice of oppressed people, focusing on social change. He is seen as a radical threat by the FBI and is targeted. The FBI uses William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakefield) as an informant to infiltrate Hampton and the Black Panther Party after O’Neal is caught impersonating an officer and stealing a car. The narrative is filled with paranoia, the push and pull of loyalty and betrayal of O’Neal against what is “right” and “wrong” and ultimately causing harm and eventual downfall to the Black Panther Party. He risks the lives of the people who literally committed their life to the cause. There is a theme of strength in community and commitment, and betrayal of one another.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
There is so much to say here. Kaluuya’s performance as Fred Hampton is passionate and he fully demands your undivided attention every frame he is on screen. He speaks with authority, but at the same time is so smooth with his delivery I could have melted into a puddle in the moments where he is not yelling and preaching. Although, don’t get me wrong, he is extremely charismatic and effective in those moments, too. The chemistry Hampton has with Deborah Johnson (Dominque Fishback) is so natural in its evolution, I could have watched a separate two-hour story just solely focused on their love story. Fishback is my favorite performance; she is just as delicate and she is strong and bold. Her vulnerability and strength as she watches and accepts Hampton revealing with confidence and certainty that he would die for this cause and these people is an emotional experience. She navigates this performance with so much range in the human condition, she will blow you away without question.
LaKeith Stanfield proves again that he is fully transformative in whatever character he morphs into, like a chameleon. He is so convincing when we are privy to seeing him play both sides of the coin as William “Bill” O’Neal. His chemistry with Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell is also at a peak level. There are moments where you could be convinced they are old buddies, and they truly care about each other and have a friendship, juxtaposed to moments where there is real threat to both of their existence and livelihood. Plemons has a way of using a calm demeanor to create a quiet but aggressive tension.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
I would not necessarily say there is a strong use of visual effects and make-up throughout, but the design of the film and the way it is shot is remarkable and dynamic. The camerawork is purposeful--the shot composition and framing are strategic in crowded moments to make you feel like you are a part of the crowd as if you are included in the situation and almost living in that moment. The camera involves you in a personal way. There is one scene that creates so much suspense and tension just with the shot, reaction shot tempo between two characters--no words are said, but the framing of the shot and the eyelines it creates between the two characters in a definitive moment in the narrative, gives so much weight to the situation, I felt the anxiety in my gut.
The lighting is special, too, most notably for me in a specific scene with Hampton and Deborah. She looks almost angelic the way she is lit, a small lamp in the foreground illuminates her middle body, and then a lamp above her gives the aura of a halo, an angel in Hamptons life. This use of lighting sprinkles in characteristics of the people it surrounds, giving us a message about their personality.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score booms and swells at perfect moments, creating suspense and tension exactly where it is needed. There is one particular scene that displays perfectly executed sound mixing and is memorable for me, though. During a discussion between FBI Agent Roy Mitchell and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, they have an intense conversation about essentially bringing down Hampton and the Black Panthers, and Hoover is basically “calling” on Mitchell to make this happen. In the background, there is a faint sound of a phone ringing--assumingly somewhere in the office behind the door of this closed meeting. That, for me, is a sign of concentrated and deliberate filmmaking.
I will definitely look forward to watching this again when it hits HBO Max this weekend, and I will look forward to seeing everyone’s reactions. This film will create a lot of buzz that I think will be uncontroversial with a lot of agreement on how strong of a film it is overall. There will be much discussion around award contending for this one, too. Shaka King needs to write and direct more films, now!