Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King, 2021, USA)

     Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Fred Hampton, the leader of the Chicago Black Panther in the 1960s. Hampton was a controversial figure, a "Black Messiah" who received the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Petty criminal William O'Neal was given leniency by the FBI for his crimes if he infiltrated Hampton's inner circle. The film captures O'Neal's movement from outsider to insider. Twin brothers and comedians Kenny and Keith Lucas originally pitched the project as "The Departed meets The Conformist", and this is an accurate description. 

    Daniel Kaluuya, the British actor best known as the lead in Get Out, plays Hampton with a great deal of vigor and conviction. While Kaluuya is actually 10 years older than Hampton was at the time of his murder, he is very convincing as the young revolutionary. LaKeith Stanfield plays counterpoint to Kaluuya, as William O'Neal. His portrayal of O'Neal is a tortured one, and relays a constant state of unease. It is not surprising to see that Stanfield is getting accolades for his turn as O'Neal, as he has emerged as a familiar face in many notable films as of late - from Knives Out to Uncut Gems

    Shaka King does a great job capturing the mood and aesthetic of late 60s, although the film itself does have some slow points. The film is broken out into vignettes that move along toward Hampton's inevitable demise. The film is broken up by a thrilling shootout sequence between the Black Panthers and Chicago Police, as well as a romance that develops between Hampton and Deborah Johnson. Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah is an engaging if somewhat overlong biographical drama with tense moments. For a second feature, Shaka King's film is highly impressive, and it will be interesting to see what he does next.


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