Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

In many ways a stronger, smarter, and more complicated film than I was even expecting, but in others a shakier and more opaque one. What’s clear of Judas and the Black Messiah upon first viewing is that it boasts confident direction by Shaka King and two truly scorching performances from Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, both of whom ably locate the fear, rage, and despair roiling away beneath the surface of their characters.

Forced to play the title’s mythic roles by the demands of their day and tendrils of white supremacy that remain terrifyingly out of sight, Kaluuya’s Hampton and Stanfield’s O’Neill are trapped at the center of a shadow war that will long outlast them. Their awareness of this drives the ideological distance between them that neither history nor this retelling ever gave them an opportunity to mediate face-to-face. 

King fully delivers that claustrophobia, ambiguity, and sense of death on the wind, rendering Chicago as a grim, bombed-out battleground. He sometimes subtly asserts his ideas about calling, brotherhood and the costs of struggle with framing and costuming choices, and other times vocalizes them in showy monologues that can’t quite bear the weight they’re asked to carry. Judas and the Black Messiah is startlingly pensive and forbidding; it manages to capture the feeling of men who knew they were closer to death with each day and electrified by the pressures compacting them.

Ultimately, the smartest choice King makes is to treat the story of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther party, and the FBI’s COINTELPRO program as a war saga of Biblical import, one in which the unaccountable violence of systemic racism demanded activists become freedom fighters, asked that they give their deaths to the cause as well as their lives — which is to say, for many, asked far more than they should have ever had to give. That’s what it was. Judas and the Black Messiah is enraging in the full-force gut-punch of its tragedy, and in its damning ring of truth.

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