#SUNDANCE: “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH”
Review by Amanda Gilmore for Mr. Will Wong
This outstanding Film depicts the true story of how William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) was offered a plea deal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, with the intent to gain intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Director and Co-Writer Shaka King has brought us an important story about a buried history. It’s filled with tragedy, adrenaline and tender moments. Balancing these moments is a feat, but King succeeds. There are jarring scenes of police shootouts and violence against members of the Black Panther Party. Then moments of contemplation from Hampton with his comrades and partner Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback).
The decision by King and Co-Writer Will Berson to start and end their re-telling of this tragedy with a reenactment of an O’Neil interview is impressive. In doing so, they give audiences a look into the antagonist of their Film. They depict the primary drive for O’Neil was the money the FBI was paying him. The reenactment and actual interview footage at the end show how far in denial O’Neil was about his time as an informant. King looks at O’Neil as a person who, “falls for everything if they stand for nothing.”
Stanfield’s performance of the Antagonist is nuanced. He manages to leave mystery in his layered performance that allows audiences to question if O’Neil ever felt guilty. By no way is O’Neil redeemed, but having an Actor able to express humanity in someone consumed by self-preservation is incredible to watch. It’s in O’Neil’s self-preservation that pins him as the direct opposite of Hampton, who was always for the people.
Kaluuya is terrific as Hampton. His control over his voice, accent and bravado, is masterful, especially when displaying difference in cadences. He had a different cadence when having conversations and giving speeches. Kaluuya does this throughout, particularly in the “I am a Revolutionary,” scene. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the Film that gives chills and leaves goosebumps. It also shows the unbelievable talent of Kaluuya.
Although, Judas and the Black Messiah is about the two men, King and his female Cast, lift-up the female characters. Johnson is a pivotal part of the story and is where the heart of the Film lies. It’s lovely to watch Kaluuya and Fishback together on-screen. They have magnetic chemistry that is palpable. Fishback gives an outstanding performance throughout.
King’s use of Sound and Music is integral to his story. Through the first part of the Film, there is a Jazz composition that complements to the movement of the Black Panther Party. When things begin to become more tumultuous, due to O’Niel following out more vile orders from the FBI, the music changes to string compositions. These compositions create an unsettling atmosphere. The Film goes quiet near the end. The moments surrounding the assassination of Hampton by the FBI is silent, adding to the already sombre tone.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a layered Film about many things. One of them being the importance of legacies in a story that has been buried.
Judas and the Black Messiah screens at Sundance:
Live Premiere: February 1 at 9 PM (EST)
On-Demand: February 3 at 10 AM (EST)