When LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya appeared in Get Out in 2017 it was a significant step up for both of their careers. They’d done really strong work before, Stanfield in things like Short Term 12 and Selma and Kaluuya in Black Mirror and Sicario, but this was the first time that they started to get proper recognition. We’ve seen excellent performances from them since in movies including Sorry to Bother You, Uncut Gems and Knives Out and Widows, Queen & Slim and Black Panther respectively but with Judas and the Black Messiah, their second film together, they’ve taken another real leap forward. This one is really going to put them in the big leagues.
I wrote that on Sunday but I wish I’d had time to finish my review and post it because by Monday lunchtime they’d both been nominated for Oscars. I can’t really claim to have the insight now can I? To be fair Kaluuya already won a Golden Globe a fortnight ago and its not his first Academy Award nod either but this is still going to change things for both of them.
Interestingly Kaluuya and Stanfield have been nominated in the same category; Best Supporting Actor. Despite suggestions to the contrary I suspect the studio pushed for this because everyone knows that no one is taking Best Actor in a Leading Role from Chadwick Boseman this year. Sure, I called this back in December but I can’t claim bragging rights for this either as you only needed to see his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and of course to know the sad circumstances surrounding that film, to know where that statuette was going. Similarly knowing that these other guys are up for a big prize as well isn’t really news, not once you’ve seen the film. I stand by my initial uninfluenced statement; as soon as you’ve watched Judas and the Black Messiah it is clear that these men are going places, Oscars or no Oscars.
In the end Stanfield is sure to lose the prize to his costar because Daniel Kaluuya totally embodies famed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in this film. His performance is just superb and Kaluuya disappears into it. LaKeith Stanfield is also brilliant though, as Bill O’Neal the man who betrayed Hampton. O’Neal is theoretically the bad guy of the piece but not in the way Stanfield plays him. His portrayal brings the character such incredible nuance that at no point is he the villain, he’s just another victim of the vile machinations of Hoover’s FBI.
This is the third time in the last six months that the Black Panther movement has featured in films. As stated, it’s not the first time Daniel Kaluuya has been in a Black Panther movie but that Black Panther and these ones have no connection. The Marvel character came first but any use of the name is on the record as being entirely coincidental. It is more likely that both were inspired by the 761st ‘Black Panther’ Tank Battalion in World War II. The political organisation’s founder Bobby Searle was key to October’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the events of that film are referenced in this one. In fact Fred Hampton was a minor character in that movie. Following this, members of the British version of the Party were among those in court in the first of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology Mangrove.
You might be picking up a theme here but legal proceedings play very little part in Judas and the Black Messiah, quite the opposite. This is not the first time we’ve heard about the FBI’s crimes in their dealings with Hampton, in fact the way this went public is part of the narrative. This film will play a great part in sharing this more widely though and it is alarming stuff. It feels akin to the treatment of Steve Biko in apartheid era South Africa but this was happening in Chicago. If you need educating on Biko you can watch Cry Freedom and it is significant that that film came out in 1987 whereas this movie and the others mentioned are only being made and released now. It does feel that America, and the UK with Mangrove, are beginning to face their history and the truth of racism that many have and still do face. This delayed realisation isn’t on Shaka King and McQueen as the directors of these films but on the studios and audiences, and the awards bodies, who are now making these movies a success despite the uncomfortable subject matter.
Judas and the Black Messiah does follow a few of the beats of other undercover and infiltration stories but the context makes it all the more compelling and vital. It is essentially a thriller and there are moments of tension but for reasons explored above it is more than just another Donnie Brasco or The Departed. See it for the performances given now and the sacrifices made then.
The Ripley Factor:
It is my hope that the title of this section generally comes across as fun and kind of cool, but sometimes it can be trite. I measure the representation of females in film against Ellen Ripley because she was an ordinary woman who faced up to incredible challenges but when you are looking at those that faced real monsters not space ones it does not land as well.
Judas and the Black Messiah, while focusing on the ‘Black Messiah’ and his ‘Judas’, does heavily feature one such woman. Deborah Johnson was Hampton’s partner and she is played here by Dominique Fishback. I did have a small issue with this initially as the last time we saw Fishback she was portraying a kid in last year’s Project Power but at twenty eight she is around the same age as Daniel Kaluuya and both of them are the best part of a decade older than the people they representing on screen.
Fishback’s Johnson is an inspiration in her own right and while the film could have spent more time with her, she has a real sense of identity and agency. Expect big things from this actor too.
Johnson herself, now known as Akua Njeri, is to this day an influential activist as well as being a writer and public speaker. She was also a consultant on this film.