Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

About goddamned time a mainstream movie celebrates the greatness of the Black Panther party. Obviously, it's going to take a lot more than one movie to change the the general misconception of the Panthers as the wrong way to achieve civil rights taught in schools, but this is a step in the right direction. And from Warner Bros., no less!

Gotta admit, upon first hearing about this, I was certain it was going to be a pretty by-the-numbers historical drama that just recaps events and does so in a pretty bland way. Happy to be wrong about that. One of the most stylish films of the year by far. Can't believe I hadn't heard of Shaka King before this, but I hope I hear a lot more about him down the line. He's a talent behind the camera, and his style reminded me a lot of Steve McQueen. (Although, to be fair, that might be just because King uses McQueen's cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt). The long takes are great, depth of field is used really well, close-ups are sparing but effective, and there is just in general a lot of flare to the film. Same goes for the score, which goes off every chance it gets and really gets your heart racing. Great stuff, and it's also able to alternate between the blood-pumping scenes and more emotional moments with ease. On a similar note, H.E.R.'s end-credits ballad is definitely my favorite original song on the Oscars shortlist this year, and you should check out the entire album inspired by the film, featuring the likes of Jay-Z, A$AP Rocky, and JID. A superb album in its own right.

If it weren't for Leslie Odom, Jr. and Kingsley Ben-Adir, I'd say Daniel Kaluuya should win every supporting actor award there is this year, but he still should definitely be in the top three and I'd be perfectly happy with him winning over those two. He commands the screen in the same way Fred Hampton commanded the attention of everyone he came across, even if that meant attracting the unwanted eyes of the FBI. It's truly an outstanding performance that rivals Kaluuya's in Get Out. Gonna have to see this again to decide which I like better. Lakeith Stanfield is equally as good in a less glorified role. I do have one problem with his character, which I'll get to later, but its entirely a script thing and it doesn't take away from Stanfield's magnificence. He's one of the best actors working today, and that doesn't get said often enough. Jesse Plemons also chips in a worthy performance, giving his character depth that doesn't exist on the page through only a look or facial expression. He might be the best character actor working today, but he definitely deserves some leading roles every once in a while. Special shout-out to Michael Sheen's make-up artists, by the way, who make him look almost unrecognizable. If it weren't for his voice, I probably wouldn't have known it was him.

Despite all of this praise, I do have two issues with the film that hold me back from giving it a higher rating (though, to be clear, I do consider a 3.5 fairly high. I've been trying to keep my scores more balanced recently). The first is with Stanfield's character. His central conflict, of having to inform on Hampton but not entirely wanting to as he's swept up in the man's charisma and platform, is the driving force of the film. Only problem is, he doesn't really have a choice. I get that the filmmakers might have been a bit constrained by historical realities, but I'd have given them some historical leeway to make the conflict an actual choice. Bill O'Neal would have been ten times more interesting of a character if he wasn't basically forced by the FBI to inform on Hampton (I'm aware that's what actually happened, but it would have been better from a character standpoint to have given him a bit more wiggle room and choice in the matter). 6+ years in prison or informing isn't much of a choice. And then his regretfulness later would have been much more impactful.

Anyways, the second issue is basically one of pacing. The second half of the film really slows down and becomes unfocused, introducing a bunch of subplots and plot lines that are pretty random, as well as a lot of new characters. I think it would have been more effective to cut the runtime by maybe 20-30 minutes and hone in on the one story they're trying to tell. My interest did wane, ever so slightly in the second half.

But alas, these are minor issues on the grand scheme of things, and this is still one of the best films of the year (or last year? I'm still not sure where to put this in my ranked lists. It's competing for an Oscar for 2020 but came out in 2021, goddamn corona is really messing with my list OCD. If anyone has a concrete rule they follow in regards to this please help me!)

added to:
➡️ 2021 ranked

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