Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

This is such a weird movie. It never crosses the line into being bad, but during the entirety of watching it, something didn’t feel right. And it’s down to the basic structure of the script. The goal of the protagonist is so weakly defined and followed through. Scenes have no reason to flow into the next, which results in very lacking narrative propulsion. It falls into the classic biopic problem of the movie being a greatest hits compilation of things happening. The title of the movie is Judas and..., with “Judas” being the protagonist, but we get so little of O’Neal’s struggle and turn that by the time we get there, it feels too late and rushed. Reports suggest that this movie was heavily re-edited in post, and it shows. It either doesn’t know or fails at what it wants to be. Both actors, especially Kaluuya, power through the mess.

It doesn’t help that the film also lacks visual identity. Don’t get me wrong: some shots do give us shadow play and the tension a thriller needs and deserves, but some shots are also strangely banal and ugly. Still, Bobbitt is long overdue for a Best Cinematography nomination, so I’m fine with it. And there are some high highs in the most basic sense of craft. Many have singled out the speech scene after Hampton’s release, which does indeed sum up all the conflict, tension, and drama through simple single set-ups. I haven’t seen a new director do such classical, disciplined, and effective work in a while, but I’m even more in awe of how Shaka King tackled the famous murder, which I feared would be exploitative and unnecessary, but turned out to be tragically powerful and revelatory.

There’s an embarrassing crash course at the beginning of the movie, in which Kaluuya literally asks “what is politics?” Despite such blatant explicitness, the film fails to introduce us to the complexities of Hampton’s ideologies. And as the title predicted, the film’s Hampton does fall into the Messiah complex, which means he is more a mouthpiece than a character. What do we even know about him other than his big speeches? That he wants to fuck? This is when I realize how fucking good Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is. This shit is genuinely so hard – crafting an entertaining biopic of epic scope and length while covering the key events and, more importantly, philosophies of your character. Where Lee succeeded, King failed, and that failure has seismic consequences, including potentially disrespecting Hampton’s legacy.

And I think a big part of what defines Hampton is his age. King really missed the mark with the casting. It’s heartwarming to see Stanfield and Kaluuya – probably my favorite working young actor – get deserved recognition. But they are both far too old for their roles. Imagine watching this exact same movie but with a 21-year-old Hampton and a 17(!)-year-old O’Neal. It would be infinitely more heartbreaking and fascinating.

Still, I appreciate the attempt to break from generic prestige biopic mold, as Hampton deserves. It gains many points doing things a biopic isn’t expected to do, but I do question – just question, not necessarily reject – whether or not it gets the basic things right. It’s weird to see a major studio capitalize on Fred Hampton’s story and stances, but it is what it is. Better this than nothing, I guess.

J liked this review