• Ben Erickson

Judas and the Black Messiah

Review originally published in the March 2021 issue of Film Score Monthly

As the struggle for social justice marches forward, so too has the film industry come around to endorsing Black-centric narratives. Over the course of the last decade films like 12 Years A Slave, Selma, Hidden Figures, Moonlight, and If Beale Street Could Talk have promoted Black history, marking a widespread cultural demand for change. That these films are receiving broader attention is encouraging to see, and we can hope that public interest in similarly relevant stories will continue to reform the Hollywood elitism of decades past.

Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is the latest chapter within this growing movement, focusing on the life of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), head of the Black Panther Party Illinois chapter, and FBI informant Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). Reunited after having worked together on Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Stanfield is the Judas to Kaluuya’s Messiah, with the biographical picture following their precarious relationship up to the time of Hampton’s assassination. Joining them is Dominique Fishback, portraying Hampton’s wife Deborah Johnson, Martin Sheen, who plays a convincingly aggressive J. Edgar Hoover at the height of the FBI director’s paranoia, and Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell, O’Neal’s FBI handler.

The score was co-written by composer Mark Isham (A River Runs Through It, Of Mice and Men, and The Black Dahlia) and jazz musician Craig Harris, King’s uncle. Harris was originally hired to score the film solo, an accomplished trombonist and skilled performer of world music, jazz, and funk in his own right. However, feeling that he could use a pair of practiced hands from the world of film music, Harris invited Isham to work alongside him on the score. Isham, who began as a trumpet player and moved toward electronic music production, brought a dramatic weight to the music that balanced out its disparate jazz elements.

Leading the score is the song “The Inflated Tear,” the centrepiece of the eponymous 1968 album by multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk. The song had been on King’s mind for a while, initially used as a temp track during sessional delays back in March and subsequently adopted as the theme of the film. Kirk’s career was taking place at the same time Hampton was under investigation, influenced by the work of Classical musicians and giving rise to his self-styled association with Black Classical Music. An association that aligns the score with a distinct musical heritage.

For the uninitiated, Kirk’s virtuosic, efficacious sound can be bewildering. Alto, tenor, and bass saxophones are performed concurrently across three registers, creating a sultry, bifurcated tone. It is first encountered in all its rich, stanky glory when we meet O’Neal (“The Inflated Tear - The Car, The Club), accompanied by a didgeridoo (played by Harris) and contrabass clarinet as he strolls in to commit a petty car theft. Variations of the song are orchestrated for strings, as heard at the onset of the film (“The Inflated Tear - Opening”), recorded – as with the rest of the score – in a Manhattan ballroom.

It is interesting to consider that King did not draw from the typical well of motown vibes often heard in films to do with Black Civil Rights movements. There is no sign of Edwin Starr’s “War” or one of the many popular Jimi Hendrix tunes associated with the era. And yet there are a number of choice backwater songs that quietly and without drawing attention to themselves capture the ‘60s, such as the inclusion of Curtis Mayfield’s “Keep On Pushing.”

Quelle Chris and Chris Keys, a pair of hip-hop recording artists who had collaborated together on the 2015 album Innocent Country, were commissioned to write additional music. Their contributions cover nearly a third of the score, incorporating a number of percussive and manipulated effects including the use of mellow jazz drum kits (“News Reels”) and complex finger-snapping rhythms (“Jimmy Enters Store”). Some of the largest sequences in the film, such as the shootout at the BPP headquarters (“Rooftop”) or Hampton’s oration in the church, can be attributed to their work. The latter cleverly uses diegetic djembe and maracas as Fred makes his speech, embracing musical traditions of the African diaspora that have long been engaged within gospel church settings.

Another feature of note was the use of aleatoric, near-serial music (“We Got a Rat”), introducing a chaotic rumble from piano, upright bass, drums, and pizzicato strings (heard prominently in the alternate version included on the soundtrack). Regrettably, much of the planning and development that went into the making of the score, including this alternate take, was never realized. Harris improvised solos while watching the movie à la Miles Davis’ score for the 1958 Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, but most of these recorded improvisations did not make it into the film. Neither were the intended vocal practices, drawing from Black choral traditions such as gospel and spiritual music, executed before the pandemic threw a wrench in post-production. Nevertheless, Isham and Harris’ score still managed to accomplish a lot with a little.

For all that we hear about intersectional films, we do not hear enough about intersectional scores. The score for Judas and the Black Messiah happens to be a milestone in that department, bringing together an established film composer, a distinguished jazz musician, and a couple of tried and true hip-hop artists to craft a cohesive musical tapestry. Not only that, but the theme of the film – which you might ordinarily expect to be an original melody – was adapted from music of the era, reviving a sound that was anachronistic for its time and that itself drew on Classical influences. To say this score is anything but intersectional would be a gross injustice. With a mere thirty-one minutes of music, these musicians have together achieved a singular vision born of ‘60s pulp and contemporary inclinations, enhancing an already spectacular film and trailblazing a road forward for like-films of the future.