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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 3 March 2021

'Judas and the Black Messiah' review: Daniel Kaluuya makes compelling case for an Oscar with astounding performance

We may only be in the second month of 2021, but it's likely this biopic of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton will be labelled one of the year's best films

Daniel Kaluuya, centre, puts in an Oscar-worthy performance in 'Judas and the Black Messiah'. AP
Daniel Kaluuya, centre, puts in an Oscar-worthy performance in 'Judas and the Black Messiah'. AP

It won’t be a surprise to hear that Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah is genuinely astounding.

The first trailer for the biopic all but confirmed Kaluuya had truly embodied the chairman of Chicago’s Black Panther Party chapter throughout the late 1960s. But it’s still remarkable to see just how much heart, power, fragility and charisma the actor brings to the role, all while making sure Hampton feels real and relatable.

Even though it’s impossible not to be transfixed by his presence whenever he’s on screen, Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t simply a vehicle for Kaluuya’s talent. The film is too rich, deep and original for that, as co-writer and director Shaka King uses Hampton’s life and achievements to present a raw and timely look at racism in the US.

This might be King’s second feature film after 2013’s Newlyweeds, but his mastery of the camera, intelligent structuring and eye for detail instantly secures his place as one of Hollywood’s most exciting filmmakers.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt deserves as much kudos, as he manages to perfectly toe the line between beautiful and gritty, without being indulgent. King and his crew’s work is more than matched by those in front of the camera.

The aforementioned Kaluuya will undoubtedly take most of the plaudits, and is surely now the front-runner for Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Oscars in April, but his co-stars more than hold their own.

That’s particularly true of LaKeith Stanfield, whose character William O’Neal is the Judas in the title, and for all intents and purposes is actually the biopic’s lead. After the petty criminal is arrested for impersonating a police officer, because a “badge is scarier than a gun”, O’Neal becomes an informant for the FBI, infiltrates the Black Panther Party and becomes close with Hampton.

Stanfield has a much tougher role than Kaluuya, as he has to get his inner turmoil across in a subtle yet still powerful manner. Not only does he achieve this with aplomb, but he also manages to build a genuine rapport with Kaluuya, and their performances exquisitely complement each other.

Dominique Fishback is also revelatory as Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, bringing a tenderness and realism that is essential to the film’s success, while Jesse Plemons, as O’Neal’s FBI handler, continues to make any film better with his presence.

This image released by Warner Bros Pictures shows Lakeith Stanfield, foreground centre, and Daniel Kaluuya, background centre, in a scene from 'Judas and the Black Messiah'. AP
LaKeith Stanfield, foreground centre, plays William O’Neal, the Judas in the film's title. AP

Of course, in the context of last summer’s protests after the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Judas and the Black Messiah feels all the more integral. More than 50 years after the events of the film, you can’t help but recognise how these problems are still prevalent.

The emotional beats of the script might be a tad too familiar, while the performances are so good you’re actually left wanting more depth to the characters, but these minor foibles are eclipsed by an exuberance and vitalness that keep you hooked all the way through to its thought-provoking conclusion.

All of which means Judas and the Black Messiah is as riveting as it is provocative. So much so that, even though we’re barely into this year, it’s impossible not to label it as one of the best films of 2021.

Judas and the Black Messiah will be released in UAE cinemas on Thursday, February 18

Published: February 16, 2021 07:04 AM

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