Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

Shaka King's sophomoric effort, Judas and the Black Messiah explores the extent at which law and government agencies tried to stamp out and eliminate the Black Panthers, and how history painted them as terrorists threatening our livelihood, rather than revolutionaries combating white supremacy. J. Edgar Hoover, along with history books painted them as anti-American, violent, and dangerous. King, on the other hand, seeks to rehabilitate our understanding of the Panthers, to not cloud our knowledge of its history with a whitewashed version of it, but to portray the brutally exorcising act of violence with searing truth and honesty.

Almost everything in Judas and the Black Messiah revolves around the supporting character, as Fred Hampton recruits new members, unites factions, and through his charisma and raw energy tries to form a united coalition. Daniel Kaluuya is absolutely electrifying as the Black Panther party chairman, and he comes truly alive when in front of a crowd. Off the stage, he doesn't let his guard down, he doesn't play up an exaggerated version of himself for others, because that's who he truly is. That's also what makes his relationship with Deborah (an empathetic Dominique Fishback) especially compelling. She knows how to get through to him, and she balances the stalwart icon with her softness.

Less successful are the "Judas" portions as William O'Neal isn't written with the same amount of precision as Hampton, hurting the overall narrative. He's desperate, reactive, and squirrely, unable to hide his emotions even in frightful situations, however the film fails to really get inside his head. King lathers on too much ambiguity to his character, whether he was just in it for the money or whether his conscience was telling him otherwise. His motivations seemed shallow at best, aspects of his character that could have been fleshed out, but aren't due to the lack of scenes between the two leading men.

King's film, in the large second act, suffers from Kaluuya's absence, when Stanfield's O'Neal takes up his position. It's also when the film's almost horrid pacing rears its ugly face, a byproduct of the supporting characters being the highlight. There is no buoyancy or fluidity there, but rather a collection of moments, highlights that string it all along. The tension builds throughout, but the fragmented narrative is somewhat clunky in its execution.

Despite the slowness of the second act, King displays a talent of ironic humor to underscore some of his points in his serious story (Hampton is talking about a program to offer free breakfast for children, only to cut to Hoover declaring the "grave threat" the Panthers were to our national security). King also shines on his vision of Chicago, the rising unrest in bars, dark alleys, and industrial yards. There is no American vision of skyscrapers and unending capitalism, rather the energy and explosive atmosphere of a rising force. King's film does not accomplish every one of its ambitions, but often provides an accurate representation of the civil rights movement in the late sixties, as well as the Black Panthers, who were often associated with hatred. It's renewed attention and relevance proves that Hampton was correct: you can murder a revolutionary, but you can't murder a revolution.