Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★

[64]

Some spoilers based in history.

The film closes with onscreen text saying that FBI informant William O'Neal, the primary subject of the narrative, committed suicide the very night the 14-part documentary Eyes on the Prize 2 premiered on television (January 15, 1990—MLK Day), an extensive account on the civil rights movement beginning in 1954 and ending in 1985.

Although dying in an automobile accident, O'Neal's death was ruled a suicide, with his wife arguing it was accidental. However, earlier in the night, O'Neal reportedly became intoxicated and attempted to jump out a window. That night, with the premiere of his own story before him, where he was interviewed on his role as a black rat in a black organization [produced coincidentally by a (Henry) Hampton, unrelated to Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, whom O'Neal assisted in his assassination (though he denies actually having administered the poison... the film depicts otherwise)], apparently wrought with guilt, failed a suicide attempt only to later succeed by orchestrating another.

The meaning behind the title is forthcoming: Judas hangs himself after receiving coin from the Sanhedrin (we get a telling cut to black after O'Neal pockets the blood money from the Feds) after betraying the white messiah, only O'Neal let the guilt fester within him for 21 years before eyeing the noose. Interestingly, too, as biblical references to Judas' suicide vary, he either hanged himself, became disemboweled—or died accidentally.

Co-writer-director Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah works best as a character study of its "Judas," played brilliantly by LaKeith Stanfield, a black man repurposed by a white man to infiltrate and rout a black organization, with an end result in blood amid a volley of 99 bullets in conflict with one bullet—it is sadly easy to assume which party fired the 99. And cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's (regular DP for Steve McQueen) camera is versatile and slick. But the film suffers in its pacing and structure, resulting in a narrative and ensemble of characters that seem a bit underfed, perhaps by-the-numbers. Stanfield's O'Neal and Daniel Kaluuya's Hampton are magnificent to behold, but they feel like ciphers in their own story rather than full-blooded characters.

Sharing in themes, McQueen's Mangrove and Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 (with Bobby Seale's role in the trial appearing in this film within the context of his brutal treatment at the hands of the court, being bound and gagged... with Martin Sheen's J. Edgar Hoover remarking in this film that "it must be very cold in that Chicago courtroom" at the sight of a courtroom sketch of the chained Seale), McQueen's venture proves to be the better historical study, with Sorkin's sentimental soap (of course more about the draft than of civil rights) being the lesser of all three.

Yet, perhaps now more than ever, McQueen and King's pictures could not be more important. The war for equality, it rages still. And images of protest and violence we see here, cataloged over half a century ago, are practically interchangeable from those we see now.

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2021 [Ranked]

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