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How do you embody an icon on screen?

In Judas and the Black Messiah, Daniel Kaluuya doesn't rely on mimicry to portray one of the most-loved revolutionaries in black history – he becomes Fred Hampton in a performance that deserved every accolade it received
Thu, Jun 10, 2021

Fervent contestations always abound when considering what a black socialist utopia ought to look like. In the realm of moving pictures, Black Panther hints at this in overt and covert ways. The series Noughts & Crosses takes it a step further and reimagines a world where black people oppress white people. Quite the thought.

A battle of ideas, wider consensus, and ultimately a white hand have always derailed the attainment of a happy place where black people suffer no more. In the event we all got along, Fred Hampton would be the ideal leader of this idyllic dreamland.

The film Judas and the Black Messiah is a timely reminder of what black unity, along with those of other oppressed groups, can achieve.

With an insistence on ideological foregrounding through revolutionary literature and debate, the mind is sharpened to understand the situation in its entirety, then the gun is incorporated because words and dashikis alone will not save us. The film, directed by Shaka King, sets up this scenario early on and it remains a huge takeaway from the motion picture amid all the drama that takes place.

Judas and the Black Messiah is an American biographical drama film about the betrayal of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in late-1960s Chicago, by William O'Neal, an FBI informant.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chairman Fred. No. Daniel Kaluuya is Chairman Fred. When perusing Kaluuya's filmography before this role, there is a clear path that has served as the preparation that culminated in his Oscar win in King's film.

In Jordan Peele's Get Out, Kaluuya's character grapples with subtle racism cloaked in the horror film genre. In Melina Matsoukas' Queen & Slim he is on the run from the trigger-happy American police force. In Black Panther, he is a guardian of the great wonders of Wakanda.

In Judas..., Kaluuya portrays a real-life revolutionary. A man highly sought after by the FBI and the party he represented. Former FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, played by Martin Sheen, characterised the party as "the single greatest threat to national security. More than the Chinese, even more than the Russians. Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a black messiah from among their midst."

Kaluuya's approach to the role was not about mimicry and imitation. He added layers to the words in a manner that became his. The performance was a display of talent accompanied by technique. Posture, cadence, swag and desire for liberation earned him that Academy Award.

How do you show wit and intellect without speaking? Well, Kaluuya manages that through movement and expression. Along with King, they managed to create an environment where the audience feels like they could follow Chairman Fred to the promised land.

Lakeith Stanfield subdued his jittery and off-key usual demeanour for his role as Bill O'Neal. However, he called upon it studiously when required to in moments of great discomfort. Stanfield stood toe to toe with Kaluuya in arguably his best performance yet, which earned him an Academy Award nomination.

In the end, King and producers Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) and Zinzi Coogler, among others, continue to yearn for an alternative reality to the nightmare that is black life in the world. What possibilities could have existed if leaders like Thomas Sankara, Chris Hani, Steve Biko and Chairman Fred Hampton were not snuffed out at an early age by oppressive forces?