Raphael Georg Klopper’s review published on Letterboxd:
As typically in any award seasons tend to go, always following the simple basic rule of placing films that go to represent a current state of America’s social tensions, along some Oscar bait stories and few interesting original outings, if perhaps all in the same, but mostly spread around a large majority of films that soon are bound to be forgotten and only get nominated for sociological importance and not really “best picture” quality. Even now during COVID, the same has yet again repeated itself, but THANKFULLY, a film like Judas and the Black Messiah, for the most part doesn’t feel like one of those films (almost) at all!
And rather, feels like a bold engagingly exciting thriller, that commits to reflect upon the racial evils with an intrinsic eye inside law order and human morale, and from start to finish, draws your eyes into it and barely lets it go for the amount of tension and dramatic tenacity that gets achieved here through (for the most part) good storytelling, phenomenal acting, and a clear professional direction from a basically newcomer filmmaker Shaka King. That definitely being influenced by director colleague, and here producer Ryan Coogler, follows a pretty similar style of the same, with precisely planned framing, beautifully fluid longer shots, cutting editing; an all around exemplary Oscar nominated banger, especially in the performances!
Weird that they are considering Daniel Kaluuya as the supporting actor character and LaKeith Stanfield the main protagonist (even if also nominated as a supporting role), as it is completely the other way around! As we get to know in real deep detail Fred Hampton’s life, his struggles, in close intimate proximity, and portrayed completely absent of any human faults, something that only gets ruined in the film, and maybe it’s only serious weakness, because it really falls over typical biopic drama standards.
It isn’t weird nor a fault that the narrative does stick to a biographical trace, dealing with such figures the same will always happen, but why them emphasize the ‘Judas’ coming first in the title, if is Hampton who is the one getting most of the entire dramatic focus in most of the runtime, that outside the Panther’s movements scenes where Kaluuya shines high, all of his other scenes shared with Deborah Johnson (from a pretty good Dominique Fishback), though good on paper and with both actors sharing good chemistry, is rather dull and conventional in its handling. All the while is Stanfield’s Bill O'Neal who is the character where his ideals get to be the ones argued in engaging dramatic set-pieces.
That leaves the film with this feeling of having a dual-protagonism with independent objectives, but entangled in the attention they receive from the narrative. And Kaluuya is the most affected in this sense with an almost one-dimensional character that gets to be treated as almost a complete saint. But I say ‘saint’ in the sense that he is really portrayed as a "messiah" of the people, free from flaws or errors. Maybe it was the intention, but I don't know if it was up to work till the end, even more by treating his character as a saint in front of the extremist attitudes and speeches of the Black Panthers is somewhat... uninteresting (at best).
Focusing on Hampton in his peaceful life, showing a docile air of consolation when lamenting with a mother who lost her son part of the Black Panthers, and showing him willing to unite all groups and communities in Chicago, not only the black but also the whites and Latinos, under the same union against the oppression given by the government; are all good individual moments of their own and used to deepen the character, but it barely goes to shows his actual deeds and the political repercussions of his acts, future plans, strategies that build the leader that inspired so many that he was.
Instead, they just focus on showing only his usual speeches exploring his idealistic views for the cause against white government oppression, and that are indeed great moments as they are exactly the moments when they focus on the public persona where Hampton was shown in his pure and complete form in front of the people that he was inciting. But what remains outside this spectrum, falls into the routine and conventional soapy drama, and barely goes to explore and give layers to the character. As I understand it tries to show the human behind the symbol, but it never makes that symbol being seen at full form, and just treat it as it already is. But what does he want as a human being? As the leader he is seen? Unity? Defense against the attackers who terrorize the oppressed?
Leaving him as a character feeling devoided and lost, and this only comes as a surprise, because for how much the film shows to be so eager to follow the real facts as closely as possible, even if with minor liberties taken here and there. But (deliberately?) forgets facts on how Fred Hampton was a drug addict, maybe afraid to tarnish his image, but rather that is something that would only leave him more interesting as a character, close to us, a human with faults, mistakes that builds character. But it discards that possibility, preferring to go the easy way and show it basically perfect, therefore, sanctified and narrowly it doesn’t fall to be empty.
And thus, even the character relations, between Hampton and O’Neal barely gets touched upon besides the casual encounters of O’Neal following him along other followers (or apostles?!), feel wasted and almost harming O’Neal’s character arch. Either for barely exploring it, or giving too much attention in Hampton instead of the other protagonist, and perhaps, diverting attention and care away of what are the most engrossing scenes of the film that are exactly the ones following O’Neal and his constant struggle with himself and what he’s doing.
The film would’ve benefited much more if it could have focused more on his character and let his paranoia and moral questioning be more heightened, by even letting us be part of the same divided inner questioning. Because even when we hear Hampton shouting stuff like: “Kill the pigs”, the movie wisely deconstructs the image of extremist terrorists that the Panthers were known as and shows them as a group, not imbuing themselves with the right to kill their oppressors in open guerrilla warfare, but with an unconstitutional right of armed defense.
If at one scene they are in an open brutal shootout with the police, it’s soon counterbalanced with scenes like when O’Neal tries to incite the Panthers to commit terrorist acts, and Hampton reject it. This is again counterbalanced when they show the Panthers killing police in cold blood, and brutally describe the murder of a false informant. And it it’s this constant web of doubts, this arguing questioning devouring O’Neal from inside, is the same one that we feel while watching it. And that makes the film receive a real political thriller facet and tone, that comes pulsating strongly within the character’s own struggles, and not the other way around!
What I like most about King's direction is found both in those moments, as well as how it gives the scenes of O’Neal a real film Noir vibe, that not only O’Neal himself jokes about: “going out dressed like Bogart and shit”, as it also lives up to the perspective construction of the character who is found in a constant state of paranoia and threat lurking around all corners whenever he goes. Which makes an intriguing association, because normally Noir films get always associated with white men and characters escaping from ever increasing tragic odds haunting at their tails.
But when he brings that dynamic into the black perspective, the tone totally changes. With the warned tragedy and lurking danger is not coming from one single group of people, but from all corners, the system itself, where your color makes you the perpetrator of crime and the haunted prey! I mean…they had the perfect movie and the elements to convey both its politics and deliver a heck of a tense filled masterful character Noirish drama, but again, seemed afraid to…and leaving Lakeith superb performance overshadowed in the long run…
And even characters like Jesse Plemons’s FBI agent Roy Mitchell, doesn’t go (at least at first) the expected route of plain white racist cruelty, even when he’s in the most part portrayed as a creepy unpredictable presence as if he were basically Satan whispering in Judas ear. But even him receives the slightest amount of layers to its character to show himself rather more mysterious and with an ambiguous demeanor, that doesn’t get just treated as a mere and simplistic caricature of the racist unscrupulous pig like Martin Sheen’s J. Edgar Hoover is shown here.
Especially in a scene that presents a surprising uncertainty of his morals, where even himself is seen in doubt of his superiors actions when he’s put on to face the racist colleagues with blunt attitudes that he doesn’t seem to sympathize with. Which makes him even more complex along with the other characters, but from the middle to the end the film just gives that up and goes back to treating Plemons like one-dimensionally cruel and a blend instrument of racist evil. And the movie ultimately falls down in the biased path of trying to write rights and wrongs in a work based on real events, then turning it almost too fictional, afraid to be defending a side that you want to deliberately point out as the wrong thing in the whole story, but it’s not about that!
Being politically partial in cinema is impossible some claim, sure it is, this movie itself is far from being anywhere partial. It lays its visions and ideals through its characters frankly and openly, but even at that, it should be about questioning your audience over the same characters and believes, make us reflect over those people’s actions, and not just give it on a plate: “ah you know, he was a nice guy, he was tormented by the systemic racism and the other one was white, so that means he’s the villain you see?!”.
And for a movie that shows so many other signs of real craftsmanship and a formidable eye sight to showcase frank truths and question the morals of all sides, it ultimately falls again in what so many of these films nowadays tend to fall into, the desperate will of having to put message in front of the craft, writing off heroes and villains instead of putting us against the wall in self-question who were they in the first place, or if all they did was plain and good. It is a film that does have a clear vision, but blurred execution, gets lost in trends instead of embracing the potentials it raises, and deliver what it could’ve been a real banging masterpiece, but instead what he got was just a good, but maybe forgettable one…