Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★½

This is an interesting time for film, specifically in regards to how the medium is being used to portray social and racial injustice. Not that there haven’t been tons of movies dedicated to such topics already, but it feels like nowadays we’re not only getting them more frequently, but the voices of those closest to the heart of the matter are being put more and more in control of the ultimate vision for these films, which in turn allows us to hear much-needed new perspectives in conjunction with the movements going on today. Just in the past few months, we’ve had One Night in Miami, the Small Axe anthology, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom … and for me, the most uneasy viewing of this recent group, Judas and the Black Messiah.

Directed by Shaka King and based on real events, the film stars Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, a Black man arrested in the 1960s for attempted car theft. But rather than serving jail time, he’s approached by the FBI and offered another option: infiltrating and reporting on the Illinois wing of the Black Panther Party, including its renowned leader Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya). As you’d expect, O’Neal soon finds himself torn between his debt to the Feds and his growing admiration for the party’s beliefs, especially as alliances shift and the war between the BPP and Chicago police escalates.

As I said, this movie was a difficult watch for me. That’s mainly due to the points of view we’re given from within a movement as radical and aggressive as the BPP, as well as the terrible, unjust conditions they live in that such aggression is in response to. I generally like to have the belief that violence is never the solution to solving injustices like these, and yet I can’t deny the justification in what they’re fighting for and how their only other option might be to take such abuse. It does tackle the ineffectuality of systemic “solutions” after all, especially when you witness the dirty tricks the FBI and cops pull, and the crimes they commit that should absolutely land them jail time yet leave them with their hands clean compared to the blamed victims. Because of all this, to follow these revolutionaries so closely left me in a state of near-constant unrest as I watched … which I don’t consider a bad thing by any means. Movies like these have challenged my perceptions of what’s justified versus what’s not, and I think that’s necessary.

It’s not just my own personal mindset that contributes to this feeling, though. King injects a deeply stressful and uncomfortable tone to nearly the entire film. The editing feels like it’s designed to emulate the heightened anger and emotions of the characters you’re watching, rarely giving you any space to cool down. The shots are frantic, yet fluid; it flows very smoothly despite how briskly scenes progress. Even the score put me a bit on edge at times; it’s jazzy and upbeat, but with a somewhat loose composition, adding to the feeling of instability. I don’t know whether all this was the intended reaction it got out of me, but it made me appreciate the film all the more regardless. The story may lose focus in a few instances, but there was still never a dull moment. It also shows off King’s range in helming intense, action-heavy sequences as effectively as quieter, more reflective ones, and even having those two ends bleed into one another in some instances.

Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya have been two of the most exciting of today’s actors to watch in my opinion, and I’m so pleased to say they top themselves here. Stanfield brings so much hardened vulnerability to O’Neal, just barely able to keep himself together as the turmoil and anger within him builds. The character finds himself trapped needing to work within a system to save himself, while observing those who want to inspire people like him to break out of that system. The look in his eyes alone during his final scene with his FBI handler – played very well by Jesse Plemons – tells you everything you need to know about how he feels about not just everything he’s done, but the deeply-rooted temptations he’s faced with even going into the future. And I have never seen Daniel Kaluuya this energized in a role, but it’s absolutely electrifying to see him embody Fred Hampton so scarily authentically. It’s enough to get your blood pumping as if you were actually at a Hampton rally. Yet he also has the softer moments needed to see him in a more personal light, especially as new developments enter his life that cause him to think about things a bit differently.

I also loved the few instances where the past and present were deliberately blurred. The film is loosely framed around an interview given by O’Neal recounting the events, but the choice they use in how to portray him in those interviews was a sneaky, deeply evocative visual device to show how much these events stayed with him and how he never truly escaped the turmoil they planted within him … especially when you learn what his ultimate fate was. Little creative touches like that make an already-great film stand out even more.

I think most know going in that Judas and the Black Messiah is going to be hard to stomach. It feels wholly designed to invoke viewer anxiety and anger in a way that I’ve rarely seen in recent memory, thriving in covering every base you’d want a film telling this story to cover. The only thing that keeps it from a perfect score is a small handful of scenes that didn’t really add anything in my eyes. But it’s very, very close, and has my highest recommendation as what I already know will be one of the best films of 2021.

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