Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

Okay. Yes. Bedizening your biopic of a proud anti-capitalist with a Jay-Z soundtrack and an aggressive Oscar campaign— these are hmm iffy optics. Like, I couldn't sketch a better parody of the current state of NPR Leftism if you locked me in my room for 72 hours with some Red Bull and three magic markers. But... getting all self-righteous about this film's timid refusal to honor Hampton with an equivalent radical liberationist perspective of its own is about the same level of silly. At its core, Judas and The Black Messiah isn't any different than, like, Argo or Syriana or somesuch white elephant-- all it really wants to do is garb pleasing character-based thriller mechanics in a nice layer of historical milieu. You can find that distasteful and make a big stink, or you can admire that said mechanics are A. Entertaining and B. pulled off with a great deal of skill and respect for audience intelligence (dig how King skips O'Neal being briefed on his assignment and instead just tosses him into training "these motherfuckers have rocket launchers?".

ALSO: think about how many big, wide-release (ha) movies we've had about true black revolutionaries? Imo it's enough to just get Hampton on screen, retain his politics without too much oil spilt on top (wouldn't have expected them to capture his optimistic Maoism in amber, but cool, they did) and push still radical theories (i.e unconfirmed by any written historical record, but y'know obviously true) about the FBI's involvement in Hampton's murder and (even more surprising/welcome) their truly fucked wielding of George Sams as a battering ram. Sure, King doesn't really take an investigative scalpel to any of this incident or invest their unfortunate conclusions with black-centric futurity or philosophy, but that's a lot to ask of him. Frankly, the film is less interested in the *why* of black revolutionary priority than in the *how* of revolutionary failure ( all embodied in Winter's tragic visit to the hospital janitor guy "And fuck my money up?"), and imo that's good. That's more dramatic. Movies are dramatic.

Honestly, a truly great (and dramatic) movie would have turned further away from Hampton (which according to some people, it already does too much lmao) and really zeroed in on O'Neal so that his late game heebie jeebies felt more dimensional (or at least more dimensional than that goofy "THEY'RE GONNA REALIZE I'M A RAT" dream sequence). King and Stanfield give us just enough of a taste of a dude tragically cognizant of the taint his sociopathy casts against the backdrop of impassioned history ... you're really just left thirsting for more, and the film is too committed to bland historicity to really dive deep. Hampton's prison term, especially, should function as a kind of dramatic void, stranding us with O'Neal, but King is too timid to deprive the audience of its identification figure. Oh well. Great acting at least, though I seriously doubt any informant could spend 80% of their tenure making pained internal-conflict faces the way Stanfield does and not get immediately sniffed out (his final offer of a drink to Hampton is frankly just over the fucking top)

SIDE NOTE: wouldn't have thought about this before, probably, but I just spent the last 8 months working on a multi-million dollar film set and I was super distracted by how obviously low-budget a production this was. Almost no exterior location work, like two scenes with any significant quantity of extras. Coogler wtf I know you have access to more cash, bud.

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