inkylewetrust1’s review published on Letterboxd:
Judas & the Black Messiah is an odd duck. It's like if Gus Van Sandt's MILK was from the point of view of Josh Brolin. Jesse Plemons, a FBI agent who is pushing his informant to give up the Black Panthers, has probably the closest thing to an arc in the film & that's pretty fucking weird for a movie about Fred Hampton & the man who got him killed.
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton & Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O'Neal deserve all the credit they're getting for making such an impression when you consider how static their characters are.
Fred is impassioned & fiery, but sweet with his girlfriend. Bill... doesn't want to go to jail. Honestly, the Bill character is such a cypher & the film never let's us see who this man is other than "scared to be caught". Kaluuya, especially towards the end, keeps trying to actually make the film about Fred, but the film keeps steering us back to the Bill character who is like, I don't want to do this, but I will. It's honestly still a question mark when the film ends if Bill O' Neal even liked Fred Hampton/The Black Panthers. We're told he does, but the film never shows us if he actually believes one way or the other. Like, Yes, it's clear Bill doesn't want Fred to die, but it's given about as much weigh as me not wanting to cause the death of my neighbor.
This feels like a film where 20mins was cut out of it. I think the director Shaka King gets good performances from everyone, but because the film's focal character is Bill, who we never really know, it makes it really hard to empathize with him & thus makes the tragedy of how he set Fred Hampton up for murder feel ultimately hollow.
And here's my biggest question:
Narratively speaking, what does the film gain by having it's central character be Bill O'Neal? That the cops put him in an impossible situation that threatened his life? If that's the case I could've got that from the central character being Fred Hampton.
Hampton's life was rife with unbearable pressure from the police & his own internal drama (Hampton was only 21 when he was murdered by the FBI). Why don't we know anything about who Bill O'Neal actually was as a person? Why aren't we given a real scene (besides one in a car where the Bill character is given a nickname) between Kaluuya & Stanfield that establishes if they even were friends? Why are the actual politics of Fred Hampton and/or the Black Panthers extremely surface?
I was so excited for this movie (that first trailer is AMAZING!), but in the end it suffers from a lot of the same structural problems as Scott Cooper's 2015 film Black Mass (granted Judas & the Black Messiah is a better film). Anyways I don't have anything clever to put as my closer except that while this film didn't work for me I'm excited to see what Shaka King makes next. He is definitely good with actors & any director who hires the wonderful cinematographer Sean Bobbit (this is a good looking film) has my respect.
I will say HBO MAX has some really cool 18-30min BTS interviews with the cast & crew that dig into a lot of the history, acting, costumes & music. I found all these to be great as they dug into the history in a deeper & more interesting way.
Watched on HBO MAX.