Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★½

Judas and the Black Messiah is a strong recollection of a beautiful and sadly, destroyed revolution. Made up of intelligent, mostly accurate, if not distilled, scenes of strategy as well of the general essence of the Black Panther Party, the film brings humanity to a subject that is often misrepresented. In fact, the misrepresentation of both the BPP and the government’s role in the civil rights movement is subverted without skewering reality. That is not to say that the film should be taken as completely factual. There are some changes and Fred Hampton’s politics are glossed over, but those politics aren’t shifted to fit a liberal agenda which often happens in biopics such as this. I encourage my audience to watch this as it is certainly worth your time, but erase the naive notion that a major studio, such as Warner Bros, will allow his radical views to go on celluloid. I understand the disappointment of the loss of those views and there is certainly a good point to this criticism. I don’t think the exclusion of those ideas completely dissipate all good will the film has to offer.

As with most biopics, the performances are central to this film. Lakeith Stanfield is our protagonist, Bill O’Neal. If you are familiar with Stanfield’s work, you will be underwhelmed by this performance. I wouldn’t say he is phoning it in, but his usual authority over the audience’s attention is lost. I don’t think this is only because this character is not as entertaining in comparison to his others. Rather, he is meant to be restrained both in how he acts as a secret informant and how conflicted he is in his role in the destruction of Fred Hampton. Stanfield is doing the best he can with this script and character, though it is still underwhelming.

In comparison, Daniel Kaluuya thrives as Fred Hampton. In reality, Hampton’s presence was commanding due to his charm, passion, and mastery with words. Kaluuya’s performance doesn’t just drip with these qualities, but he pours each of these qualities onto the screen with such perfection that the audience can not help but fall deep into his world. While I don’t think he is solely responsible, Kaluuya makes this film work. He makes you care. He makes you question your own view of the world. He makes you question even how the world has been presented to you. Hampton did that in his activism. Kaluuya does that in this performance.

Jesse Plummons is great as always. He has a similarly reserved role to Stanfield though his evil seeps through. He acts as diplomatic as any leading man in a political thriller but there is no light beneath his eyes. He is cold, both in action and reaction. The few times he is taken off-guard, he reverts to the status quo. He takes no position. Multiple times he compares the BPP to the KKK, an often cited analogy in this time by white moderates. This, compounded with his uncaring, cold demeanor, makes him the perfect villain to a passion-filled movement.

The direction helps contrast and subvert the BPP and the CIA. Often the CIA has been framed not only as in the political right but in the aesthetically right, being show as passionate role models. Here, they are filmed with a stingy air surrounding them and still camera movements. Whereas the BPP is full of passion, with each member having a fiery look in their eyes and anticipated motion to back the fire up.

Art is utilized by them not only in their speeches but with the romantic plot's emphasis on poetry. Community is emphasized as well, which contrasts the way the Party is often framed as selfish. Whereas the CIA are three men who mock the poor, make others do their bidding, and only worry about losing power in disgusting scenes of speculation.

The beautiful contrast is what makes this film work. I dont doubt that many will be disappointed in the film. I dont blame them for it. But I cant deny the power in how Shaka King has flipped this narrative not only by telling this story but by flipping the form of the narrative.

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