Hot off the trail of the year 2020, Judas and the Black Messiah sweeps in as a 2021 film to make its statement to the world. There’s no denying that the flurry of racially focussed narratives that have released within the past year are all bolstered by the unnerving recent events that took place in America during 2020. Whenever I view a film I try my best to observe it as its own self-contained piece of material, free from outside influence; but I must say, from the racially focussed narratives that have released within the past year, I find Judas and the Black Messiah to be the most difficult test in resisting this urge. Simply, this film carries with it heavy relevance to the current day climate in the United States and with that, a brutally honest perspective that is difficult to endure, but a pleasure to witness on-screen.
Judas and the Black Messiah follows the true story of an FBI informant named Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), a car thief with his hands tied. Bill is forced to infiltrate the notorious Black Panther Party in order to obtain information of its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Throughout this narrative we follow Bill scheming his way through various situations to obtain both the trust and loyalty of the Panthers, but more specifically of Fred Hampton himself. Much like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) this film follows a similar structure in both the fact they follow a lead character who is an informant infiltrating a potentially dangerous group.
Judas and the Black Messiah takes quite a leveled approach to the villainy displayed within the various groups and organizations it displays; for example, on one end we have the altruistic Panthers, particularly Fred Hampton – whose aim is to uplift both black communities and those who are trodden by the oppressive weight of society. Then there’s the less involved Panther’s who view their goals as more ‘us vs them’, ultimately staining the name of the Panther’s due to their aggressive impulses at the police. On the other end of the spectrum we have the FBI, who also share varying levels of moral disdain for the Black Panther Party – particularly, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who acts a middle-man for Bill (his informant). Roy Mitchell is for all intents and purposes a man doing his job and swallowing the racist directives of his superiors – equally guilty in the crime, but shows a level of remorse for taking part in it. The director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) is wholly and truly shown as a villain – complete with haunting speeches about ending a war before it begins and protecting their self-interests. Then of course, there’s the informants, in particular, Bill – whose a character all on his own.
Bill is a man without much of an identity or sense of self, he mentions within the first few minutes of the film that he “never really thought” about leaders such as Malcom X – implicating he separates himself from black civil rights movements. It’s important to understand that Bill is a man who is also in search of identity but struggles to find it, much of this is why he’s the right man to infiltrate the Panthers, Bill is a blank slate. Much of this film follows Bill’s fluctuation in morals and sense of identity from beginning to end – inferring that the message behind Judas and the Black Messiah is how identity is tied to revolution. Who are you, what do you want, and what do you truly stand up for? Bill is a nameless man, without conception of his desires, and a twisted view of what he stands for. He’s complicated.
Where Judas and the Black Messiah really shines is in its performances; particularly from both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Standfield. Kaluuya embodies the energy one would expect to feel when standing in front of a revolutionary – his voice trumpets through the room and through your chest making his words feel heavy and vital. Kaluuya displays more than just these base qualities however, as he is equally as proficient at pulling off his more tender moments alongside his girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback). Then there’s Lakeith, an actor who has been growing to prominence since his days in the TV series Atlanta (2016-2018), Get Out (2018), and Sorry to Bother You (2018) – I had personally not been overly impressed by his range, but that all changes here – Stanfield displays a range of emotions and passion unlike his previous roles, breaking through his familiar characteristics that can be noticed in his previous roles and reforging an entirely new identity in this one; ironically, to a character who lacks one.
DoP Sean Bobbitt applies a strong attention to detail on a technical level to establish a keen sense of atmosphere and accurately replicate the social-conditions of 1960’s America. Bobbitt adopts a stylistic approach to capturing the film on frame which remains consistent and helps the audience be engrossed in the film. Frame composition is well selected here as it directs the attention of the audience to the visually important elements on screen. Bobbitt captures some powerful imagery as he’ll often focus on character reactions to evoke emotion and highlight the brutality of the nightmarish events.The camera is usually always moving following the characters so when the camera is static, that moment immediately becomes effective to the viewer.
Production Designer Sam Lisenco utilises key locations and set-design to capture the essence of 1960’s Chicago, in a way that feels naturalistic and authentic to the narrative. Lisenco’s work transcends to the little things in the background that add to the emotional weight of this film and add further depth to the atmosphere of the film. Costuming in this film is incredibly detailed and consistent throughout the entirety of the runtime – replicating the Black Panthers and the Crowns authentically.
With the perfect combination of African inspired drum beats and iconic black jazz, Mark Isham & Craig Harris have constructed a fitting score for this historic cinema piece. The duo works well together with director Shaka King to time the use of score pieces throughout this film to help capture the film’s most impactful moments. A great example of this is a scene where they don’t use any music at all and just let what’s playing on screen do all the talking, this tactic makes the scenes more suspenseful and gut wrenching when it’s paired with clever camera work.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a marriage of fantastic elements; suspense, drama, performances, visuals, and a searingly powerful message that hits as heavy as ever. Director Shaka King shows a level of directorial brilliance that one would expect from seasoned vets like Spike Lee.