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Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield Come Full Circle in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

After sharing scenes in 2017’s ‘Get Out,’ both actors have risen to the top of their craft, albeit through very different methods

Adam Villacin

If you’ve seen Get Out, then you know the scene. Chris Washington, played with mounting anxiety by Daniel Kaluuya, thinks he’s found respite from a wave of microaggressions when he spots another Black person. “Good to see another brother around here,” he says to a rail-thin man in a straw hat played by Lakeith Stanfield. But what Chris hoped would be a moment of comfort only adds to his unease. The man, who identifies himself as “Logan King,” looks through him with dead eyes. And when Chris extends his fist, Logan awkwardly grabs it with an open hand. Something is amiss. This becomes even more apparent moments later when, after Chris accidentally takes a flash photo of Logan, his nose starts bleeding, the life briefly returns in his eyes, and he lurches toward Chris pleadingly. “Get out,” he whimpers. “Get out! GET OUT!”

Get Out was the first time Kaluuya and Stanfield shared the screen. The two actors’ careers have been connected ever since.

Kaluuya and Stanfield’s bond grew as Get Out became one of the most successful movies of 2017. Their relationship developed during that year in Atlanta, where Kaluuya was filming Black Panther while Stanfield filmed Atlanta’s second season. By the time both projects premiered in 2018, the two actors were en route to stardom—albeit through different approaches. Kaluuya, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in Get Out, brings a steady resolve to his roles. There’s a quiet intensity to his work, as if he’s planting both feet firmly in every character he portrays. Stanfield, on the other hand, is more malleable, bending his performances to the needs of the character or the story, often losing himself in the role.

Both have forged careers that exist outside of the norm, allowing them to work in any genre. Kaluuya has done crime thrillers like 2015’s Sicario and 2018’s Widows, blockbuster Marvel films like Black Panther, and stylish but deeply flawed road flicks like 2019’s Queen & Slim. Stanfield’s résumé is even more random, from roles in acclaimed series like Atlanta and BoJack Horseman, to intricate thrillers like 2017’s Death Note and 2018’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, to absurdist fare like 2018’s Sorry to Bother You, to mystery noir and romantic drama like 2019’s Knives Out and 2020’s The Photograph.

Now, four years after appearing together in a genre bender like Get Out, they’re facing off in another: Judas and the Black Messiah. The film, in theaters and available on HBO Max this Friday, is based on the true story of William O’Neal (Stanfield), a young criminal turned FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party and obtained information that helped law enforcement assassinate rising Panther chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) in 1969. It’s a bold, tense film, and among many other things it stands as a true showcase for Kaluuya and Stanfield. Two of the most fascinating actors of their generation have arrived at this point through very different methods and choices, but those styles and decisions have positioned them in the vanguard of Hollywood.

In roughly a decade, Kaluuya has gone from unknown to leading man. The British actor’s early roles include appearances in the BBC’s Shoot the Messenger, an episode of Doctor Who, and a stint on the original version of raunchy teen comedy-drama Skins, but a 2011 episode of the sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror is what led to his breakout role in Get Out. In the episode “Fifteen Million Merits” from Black Mirror’s first season, Kaluuya plays a young man whose simmering frustration with his dystopian reality culminates in a fiery speech. Kaluuya runs the gamut of emotions during the episode, and Jordan Peele, who saw it years later, says that range confirmed that he was right for the role of Chris. “Through most of the episode he’s restrained and subdued, but by the end his passion explodes into a primal unhinged monologue that is a thing of beauty,” Peele told The New York Times in 2018.

As Chris, Kaluuya plays a photographer dealing with the discomfort of meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. He smiles his way through their white liberal posturing, all while walking on eggshells. Of course, the situation turns out to be far more sinister than he imagined, as he goes from figuratively trying to survive a weekend in an uncomfortable situation to literally fighting for his life. Kaluuya’s performance evolves as Chris’s circumstances grow more dire: His polite smile boils over into fear before giving way to his survival instincts. The scenario escalates quickly, but what truly breeds tension is the restraint in Kaluuya’s performance. He wants to ask questions, or flip out at certain moments, but he keeps his mouth closed and eyes open as an act of self-preservation. Kaluuya’s turn as Get Out’s distressed hero showed his vulnerability as a performer and rapidly elevated the unheralded actor’s profile (glossy profiles and late-night talk-show interviews soon followed), but it also led to better opportunities like Steve McQueen’s Widows.

As Jatemme Manning, the enforcer for his crime boss/aspiring politician brother (played by Stanfield’s Atlanta costar, Brian Tyree Henry), Kaluuya is the pure embodiment of menace. His most terrifying quality is his body language: the lack of respect for private property, the threatening wave, and that stare. He’s more a force of malice than a human being. After two henchmen (played by the Cool Kids) are robbed, Jatemme has them brought in front of him. He asks them to freestyle—after all, they seemed happy enough to do so minutes earlier, hiding from Jatemme in a locker. Jatemme abruptly punches one of them in the chest—which wasn’t in the script, apparently—to show he’s serious about his request. As they fidget and begin to follow his orders, Jatemme creeps closer to their faces, violating their space, nodding his head, and feigning enthusiasm—then he shoots both of them in cold blood, hardly any emotion on his face. The unbroken take emphasizes Jatemme’s intimidation and their fear, and Kaluuya’s range.

In Stanfield’s first film role, he played a troubled teen living in a group home in 2013’s lauded indie Short Term 12. From there, he portrayed slain civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in 2014’s Selma, Snoop Dogg in 2015’s N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, and a teenage Blood who bullies the main trio in 2015’s Dope. His breakout came the following year as Darius in Atlanta, playing the peculiar consigliere who acts as the show’s conscience because he’s so in tune with the surreal nature of his environment. Stanfield shined in the face of malevolence in Atlanta’s second season when Darius was given his own capsule episode, “Teddy Perkins,” which remains the most bizarre installation of the show to date. In it, Darius visits a Michael Jackson–inspired recluse (played by Donald Glover) in pursuit of a rare piano. With each off-the-wall scene, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s been lured into a death trap, and Stanfield is incredible as Darius goes from nonchalant to negotiating his own hostage situation. The episode underlined Stanfield’s adaptability by showing he can carry the story, forcing Darius—who’s normally the oddball in scenes—to play the straight man to save his own life.

Although Stanfield’s proved that he can lead, his variety of supporting roles have established him as a fantastic Method actor. He’s a chameleon whose performances never feel like acting—you know it’s him playing these roles, yet each character feels wholly distinguished. Darius’s eccentricities are nothing like those of L, the mysterious detective he plays in Death Note; he’s a slippery eel as Demany, the untrustworthy middleman in 2019’s Uncut Gems; his total investment as an individual turned sellout is what helps land Sorry to Bother You’s surreal narrative. “For me, the greatest joy in directing actors is the surprises they give you—the things they do that even surprise them,” Judas and the Black Messiah director Shaka King told GQ recently. “I want actors to surprise themselves, and he does that all the time; that’s something that he is known for. Maybe it hasn’t been expressed that way, but that’s why you like watching him.”

In Judas and the Black Messiah, Stanfield is tasked with playing two roles in one; the stress that drips off his duplicitous character is a credit to his aptitude. Kaluuya, meanwhile, shows a versatility that serves him well as Hampton, whom he imbues with charm, pride, and intelligence. Historically, the results are good when Kaluuya and Stanfield are scene partners, but part of the reason they’re even able to stand opposite each other in a film like Judas and the Black Messiah—a studio film about the U.S. government conspiring to kill a Black socialist leader—is because of shifts within Hollywood during the latter half of the 2010s. Their rise came amid new interest in Black art, motivated not only by the success of shows like Atlanta, but also Moonlight’s dramatic Oscar win and the sweeping critical and commercial success of Get Out and Black Panther. That’s not to say that Kaluuya and Stanfield’s prosperity is purely the result of a Hollywood ploy to capitalize on attempts to make amends for its racist history. In the past half-decade, there have surely been more—and better—opportunities for Black actors, but Kaluuya and Stanfield’s careers took off because of what they did with those opportunities.