Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★½

The problem with films based on historical events generally, and biopics specifically, is that they nearly always proceed as if the audience is oblivious to the events depicted. The natural consequence of this is that such films more often than not take on a cloyingly didactic tone; when the film deals with a protagonist who is being lionized, praised, or otherwise venerated, this didactic tone becomes amplified by a breathless sort of sanctimonious hectoring.

Unfortunately for Judas and the Black Messiah, there are some among its viewership who are already well aware of the facts surrounding the Black Panthers, the murder of Fred Hampton, and the odious racism of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. These same viewers are no doubt also well aware of the fact that the systemic racism discussed and depicted in the film are still very much with us. If all that is true, why is this film being given extra credit for, in essence, drawing a giant arrow that points at the mind-numbingly obvious?

The performances, particularly by Lakeith Stanfield, are generally good. Daniel Kaluuya is one of my favorite actors working today, but it is unfortunate that the script doesn't give him much to do other than going through the motions of historical reenactment, tempered by the inevitable hagiographic Hollywood touch-ups that one has to expect.

I suspect that many will be seduced by the ostensible timeliness of the subject matter, and will be credulously satisfied with the clumsily delivered admonitions at the heart of the film. But great art is timeless, and therefore always timely, without any need to preach to the choir and without being so obvious about every choice at the artist's disposal.

On a final note, it's impossible to watch a film built around Kaluuya and Stanfield without thinking of Jordan Peele's magnificent Get Out, a film that shares many targets with Judas, but hits them with a subtlety, nuance, humor, and dexterity that are mostly absent here.

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