Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★

2021 ranked

Directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah concerns a petty criminal turned FBI informant, William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who assists the Bureau in its campaign against Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. William becomes a mole within the Black Panthers, and his loyalties are tested as he operates under the charismatic revolutionary Hampton. Judas and the Black Messiah is a very fine film, with King's filmmaking talents on full display - not to mention the brilliant cast. It succeeds on many levels, but ultimately struggles to really capture the zeal of the time and characters it is portraying.

The film is wonderfully edited and, coupled with the cinematography, keeps things moving at a good pace with the events unfolding with a fluidity and frenetic energy that serves the complex story and its many moving parts. This is most marked in the film's first half, while things seem to settle down for the more somber and grounded final act - perhaps to too great a degree. The score is similarly well matched, with a jazzy sound and occasionally jarring bursts that work seamlessly.

The performances are excellent across the board. Daniel Kaluuya gives a charismatic performance, radiating the revolutionary zeal that defines Fred Hampton. He carries himself with a sort of swagger and dignity that makes you realise how deeply he feels his ideological convictions, and his passion when delivering them is palpable. He allows Hampton's softer side to emerge in his interactions with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback - also fantastic), which grounds his performance. Lakeith Stanfield has perhaps the more challenging role of the two. William O'Neal is essentially presented as an opportunist and traitor, and Stanfield does not cloud out his character's less savoury elements. He imbues his performance with a sort of juvenile contemptuousness and pride, while also conveying his character's fear and gradual inner conflict as his loyalties are tested. It's an excellent performance in a complex and unlikable role, and stood out to me the most. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Jesse Plemmons, Ashton Sanders and Martin Sheen doing fine supporting work. Mentioned earlier, Dominique Fishback makes an impact as the grounding force in Hampton's life, but her character's agency is still apparent (if only slightly) and Fishback adds layers to a fairly small role.

Judas and the Black Messiah captures a time of enormous upheaval and unrest, with a cast of characters caught right in the middle of the storm. The film presents much of the Black Panther's ideology with little comment. As a film, it certainly explores different themes - about loyalty, justice, the limits of revolution and the senselessness of violence - but it often fails to explore these ideas with significant depth. As a result, it ultimately feels like a more surface-level explanation of events rather than an in-depth exploration. For example, we hear from Plemmons' character that William is falling under the Black Panther's spell, but this is not nearly analysed enough through the course of the film. It is told to us, but the film gives us few reasons to feel it. Fred Hampton tells us that his time in prison has changed him, but the scenes in which he is incarcerated are mostly captured in quick montages - such a consequential event that clearly impacted Hampton, but we are only privy to a slice of it. Indeed, the film must maintain its pace and not get bogged down in any one event or idea, but the mid-section of the film does seem to meander between events with a lack of depth that undermines the story's impact.

There's no question that Judas and the Black Messiah is the work of a fine filmmaker, and the performances are reason enough to check it out. I know very little about the Black Panthers, and nothing about Fred Hampton, so perhaps I'm being a bit too greedy in expecting more depth in its exploration of the events and characters involved. Overall, I simply believe that it would have benefited from a greater focus on key ideas and people, it is still a well-made, timely and engaging film.

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