By: Amanda Guarragi
Judas and the Black Messiah is the best film of the year. I know it’s only February but this is an incredible film. From the moment it began, Shaka King presents the decade of the sixties as one of the most brutal decades in American history. King makes you feel the weight of the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement, while understanding the importance of the Black Panther Party in the late 60s. It was a decade filled with hatred, death, violence and grief. Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is, and always will be, a very important figure because he was the leader of a revolution.
This film is beyond impressive because of Shaka King’s directorial efforts. It is just so sleek and unique to his style of filmmaking. From the cinematography, to the production design, to the costumes, to the jazz undertones in the score that fade as the film gets deeper into the story, everything was perfectly constructed and it worked. The structure of this film played out like The Departed (normally I don’t compare films but it’s the first thing I thought of) because of the role that William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) plays in this story. There’s a rat in the Black Panther Party and they need to find out who. What King does extremely well is framing his subjects, the viewer is constantly shown new information with the characters, instead of learning through the dialogue.
The film is beautifully shot and King makes some different choices for his action scenes. When there were scenes involving standoffs with the police and the Black Panther Party, the camera was always focused on the person being shot and not the person firing. It was interesting because it symbolized that it could be anyone, at anytime, and that these situations are about more than just one specific person. It symbolizes an entire community or an entire system fighting against each other. Shaka King and Will Berson’s screenplay was intricate and perfectly executed to accurately tell this story. His actors elevated their words, to create such a timeless film that will be remembered by many.
These performances were outstanding. First and foremost, we must give credit to the Fred Hampton who delivered such powerful speeches to unify people during this period. When Daniel Kaluuya opens his mouth, to speak his first few pieces of dialogue, the spotlight was his. Kaluuya brought Fred Hampton to the screen with such power, vulnerability and respect. Even though Kaluuya’s name has been everywhere, there needs to be recognition given to LaKeith Stanfield, who was an excellent choice to play O’Neal. Stanfield carried the film and gave a very complex performance, since he had to play both sides and had all of this information to process.
There is a third, and very important performance in the film by Dominique Fishback, who plays Deborah Johnson. Fishback’s role was a bit more laid back compared to Kaluuya and Stanfield but she had a more emotional role to play alongside them. She represented all Black women, who struggled with their agency through the revolution. The women who wanted to fight for justice, while still looking out for their men around them. In every scene Fishback was in, she presented another side of the story. She showed power through vulnerability and her emotional connection with Kaluuya shined through.
Judas and the Black Messiah will most definitely blow you away without expertly structured this film is. Shaka King delivered on all fronts and his ensemble of actors did extraordinary work with this story. Kaluuya, Fishback and Standfield deserve all the praise for their characterizations and performances because they were absolutely perfect. It is one of the best films of the year and it should be recognized as that. From beginning to end, the film flowed effortlessly from scene to scene and didn’t miss a single beat. It is such a strong directorial feature debut from Shaka King and it will leave you wanting more from him.