Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

There’s a lot going on here, but more than anything else, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is a case study of how law enforcement and the establishment destroy movements that pose any serious threat to the status quo, and by god it is heartbreaking. I don’t think the film intends to be so cynical, but it sure did put me down. It’s also a love letter to good, real, long-term organizing, that made me personally sad I turned down pretty good opportunities to do similar work as a career because I wanted to do grad school instead. So, a lot of tough emotions going around here for me.

Daniel Kaluuya is great here as Fred Hampton, obviously, but it’s weird that LaKeith Stanfield, or even Jesse Plemons, isn’t getting nearly as many accolades as Kaluuya. As the conflicted FBI informant Bill O’Neal, Stanfield carries this one, and adds another notch in his belt as one of the best working actors, almost certainly the best under 30 years old. It remains absolutely insane that he’s never even been nominated for an Oscar or Globe (or Emmy) in an already prolific career. Plemons, meanwhile, may be the next Christopher Lee if he keeps up this repertoire of villainous roles that he pulls off perfectly.

There are some beats throughout the film that don’t quite land, as there is sometimes a tendency for this film to skip and jump through what feels like a highlight reel of Fred Hampton’s organizing career. Some historically notable supporting players, like Bobby Rush and Mark Clark, are just kinda there, clocking in and out without much of a distinct personality. It’s already 2 hours and 5 minutes, but I actually think it needed to be longer, to get some more room to breath. In particular, there is a risk of accidentally whitewashing the Rainbow Coalition when the film largely skips over the detail of how forcefully the neo-Confederate Young Patriots turned against racism and white nationalism when they joined Hampton’s coalition. As it is, the only thing that gets much room to breath and develop organically in screen is Fred’s relationship with fellow activist Deborah, and even that feels rushed at points, with their initial flirtation a little unearned and certainly underwritten—how many biopics do we have to see where the central historical figure acts so larger-than-life at all times that he even woos his love via their mutual intellectual love of another historical figure’s famous writing/oratory? For a movie that does a (usually) good enough job of writing historical figures as just people rather than larger-than-life heroes or villains, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH kinda forgets how to do that when it’s time for Fred Hampton to fall in love.

But, I’m still giving this 4 stars. It’s a love letter to organizing—real organizing, not that shit where the Democratic Party drops into neighborhoods for two months before Election Day—and an incredibly well-executed tragedy that leaves you asking, through tears, what could have been. This movie is certainly effective enough that the ending, no matter how familiar you are with what happens, is intense and deeply sad. That’s a testament to how it’s directed as well, with Fred Hampton kept respectfully off-screen or in a blurred background. Director Shaka King makes a conscious choice to put us most in the shoes of Deborah, who was pregnant and survived, for the most pivotal scene of the film, and I felt I was watching it through her eyes. It is so deeply effecting, so hard to watch that I don’t know if I could watch this movie again. And for every moment of JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH that feels too rushed or underwritten, there’s an absolutely perfect moment like this too.

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