Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★

This is a movie of two absolutely brilliant scenes - the shootout halfway through and the raid on Hampton's house. Both are fraught and tense, shocking and actual, and are everything this movie needs to be. The problem is that what surrounds those two scenes is just so thoroughly mediocre.

Perhaps simply because of the presence of Jesse Plemons, the movie it reminded me most of, was Adam McKay's Vice: it's an engaging biopic that tries to do so much and sacrifices creating real characters as a result. Nobody in this film feels real, and that leaves the entire experience feeling, sadly, pedestrian.

I think this issue boils down to the fact that this is a biopic of Fred Hampton that really isn't about Fred Hampton. The Black Messiah skirts in and out of the film and the focus seems entirely on Bill O'Neal. This doesn't necessarily have to be a problem, but O'Neal is so ridiculously underwritten that it quickly becomes one. It's well-masked by a fantastic Lakeith Stanfield, but the eponymous Judas has no motivation, no depth, no character, and so watching a film about him is very uninteresting.

That's such a shame because on paper O'Neal is such an interesting character. An ambiguous, intentionally traitorous double agent; a modern-day Judas. Yet the film offers no backstory, no reason, no central idea. He does what he does because history and the script tells him to do it, not because the character wants or needs to. This character needed more than that. Stanfield does amazingly given what he had in front of him, though.

It's worth mentioning the performances because they are probably the best part of the film. Stanfield is easily the standout installing the only real emotional beats of the film and single-handedly making it watchable, and Kaluuya is... solid. He definitely gets the voice right (as far as I can tell from the one clip of the real Hampton shown at the end of the film) and his Oscar-winning clip - his 'I am a revolutionary' - is great, but it's far from his best performance. He should have an Oscar already for Get Out, so I won't deny him it (I love him, I've been watching him since his bit-part role on Psychoville) but compared to some of the work he's done, from Peele's masterpiece to Black Mirror, I have to admit I was disappointed. So, ironically enough, as much as I dislike One Night in Miami..., Odom Jr. is now my favourite of the nominees - Stanfield would be but the category fraud is too much to ignore.

Both actors, though, are shockingly miscast as 20-year-olds. Stanfield can get away with it, just, because he's so slight: I can suspend my disbelief enough to see him as 19/20. But Kaluuya? I'm sorry, I cannot even begin to believe that he is a 22-year-old. Nope.

It's a pretty good movie. The writers could learn some lessons in show not tell and it's crying out for some real characters rather than cardboard cutouts of real historical figures, but it's far from bad. It looks good, is well-acted, and is incredibly timely and important. Just the thing is we get a movie like this celebrating real-life, historical heroes almost every year, and more often than not, they're so conventional and ordinary. These should all be as good as a film like Gus Van Sant's Milk, packed with emotion and ingenuity, but they rarely are...

Personally, I think these civil rights heroes deserve better. Sadly, I think Fred Hampton also deserved better than Judas and the Black Messiah.

Amazing title, though. Really just genius.

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P.S. hate that this got an original song nomination. Stop giving nominations to credit songs - if it's not a part of the movie, you shouldn't be giving it movie awards.

Raúl liked this review