Channeling noir in modern cinema often feels like a pale imitation. Shine some filtered light and boom—you've got it. Judas and the Black Messiah culls from the great noir tradition, though it feels nothing like an imitation. It's presented with such precision, in fact, that it boasts a fresh yet classic atmosphere, giving off an air of both doom and hope in simultaneous moments; no small feat from director/writer Shaka King.
American films seem to struggle with portraying the Black Panther movement, save for peripheral nods here and there. King, however, shrewdly drops us into William O'Neal's perspective, letting us see the world with fresh eyes. Held in custody after a failed carjacking, O'Neal (Sorry to Bother You's LaKeith Stanfield) is recruited by an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad) to infiltrate the local Black Panthers chapter and gather intel on the up and coming so-called "black messiah" of Chicago, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out). J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, weirdly) obviously hates him. Unavoidably, however, Hampton's charisma tears O'Neal between his more immediate shot at freedom from law enforcement and the freedom of promise offered by Hampton's proposed future.
Characters come and go in King's film, picked off one by one by the powers that be. Still, Judas finds sure footing between gripping and inspiring as King doesn't shy away from the Black Panthers' militarism. He doesn't gloss over the novel, rare and true portrayal of women Panthers and the organization's free community social programs, either. The government's hostility toward the Panthers' agency helps balance opposing concepts of violence and charity, and members of the movement display conflicted natures and motivations. This feels vulnerable in a way mainstream cinema rarely approaches when culling tales from the real-life Panthers. These are layered and flawed people, not one-dimensional angry Black folks.
Kaluuya absorbs Hampton's leadership and determination, while Stanfield achieves a remarkable level of sympathy within the framework of a morally questionable character. There's just something about his eyes. King wrenches each character's deepest bits of humanity, letting the camera linger on facial expressions a beat or two longer than we're accustomed to in our movies, providing the opportunity to examine their pains and joys, driving both home deeply but subtly.
Judas is thus the best kind of modern filmmaking—competent and confident, visually arresting with performances so exceptional, it's enveloping from the first moments. Riveting, tense and often spellbinding, Judas stakes the claim as 2021's first can't-miss movie.