Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

There's a line in Judas and the Black Messiah where Jesse Plemons's smug informant wrangler looks at Lakeith Stanfield and says, "I'm all for civil rights, but you can't cheat your way to equality." That one line perfectly illustrates the misguided, completely delusional justifications that organizations like the FBI have employed from Day 1. Shaka King spends two hours showing us that the only reason oppressed people have to "cheat" their way to equality is because the game is already unequivocally rigged against them.

Rounding up what looks like every promising young Black actor who was available at the time of shooting, Judas and the Black Messiah revels in creating character moments for more than just the two men on the poster. We see that the mounting dissatisfaction is affecting the Black Panther members in varying ways, helping them shatter any notion of being room-filler in the Fred Hampton story. (This is certainly the best post-Moonlight career move Ashton Sanders has made, and hopefully he keeps up this trajectory.) But of course, the shine has been largely, and appropriately, allocated to the two men who occupy the film's title.

Daniel Kaluuya is electric as Fred Hampton, embodying so much integrated posturing and vocalization that he almost becomes as unrecognizable as some of his dialogue sans-subtitles. This Messiah has revealed himself to the world to single-handedly rescue the 2021 awards season. Meanwhile, Lakeith Stanfield continues to flex his range and distinguished taste in roles, inhabiting the role usually reserved for the hero in a police investigation tale, here stripped of any sense of heroism. His conflict isn't so clear-cut or tied up in a neat little bow, a fact that is punctuated by the final scene of the film.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a testament to the power of raw, motivated storytelling overcoming an increasingly crowded formula. Shaka King's film exudes the same youthful vigour and seething frustration as the movement it chronicles. He doesn't reinvent the directing wheel, but every choice is motivated and effective. His genuine desire to promote change may not be accompanied by any sort of radical adjustment in film form, but it's still refreshing to gradually start seeing new energy pumped into the decrepit biopic formula. Judas and the Black Messiah epitomizes the need for young storytellers to push forward and tell the important stories that make us angry, rather than trying to assure us that the state of the world is alright. Things may be improving, but they're not alright...

2021 Ranked.

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