Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★

The impact and history of the Black Panthers is something that, finally, we're seeing more and more of in cinema.

Perhaps inevitably, this has led to some early criticisms of Judas and the Black Messiah in that it's covering some familiar ground. I can't say I disagree with that but I also don't necessarily have a problem with it. After all, cinema has never had a problem repeating periods and incidents in white-oriented history back at us over and over again - it's about time we got some of that with black-oriented history too.

That being said, my biggest disappointment with Shaka King's film is that it could have distinguished itself by focusing more on Fred Hampton's politics. There's a really good article by Akin Olla that also makes this point and while I wouldn't go as far to say that King's film ignores Hampton's politics, it doesn't pay them as much attention as I felt it could.

The familiarity I was less impressed with here was that it was another 'infiltration' story and, frankly, Bill O'Neal's story and life choices deserved considerably less time on screen than they got. Then again, they are perhaps more appealing to a wider audience, but the net result is that Judas and the Black Messiah is far less effective and important as a film as it could have been.

It does touch on, in places, Hampton's beliefs and policies. But why wouldn't you do a deeper dive on those? Clearly King holds Hampton in great respect, as anybody should, but perhaps the title is key here. Seeing him as a messianic figure first and foremost, he misses a chance to focus on Hampton, and his group, and the significant amount of ground work they did.

I also have mixed feelings about the scenes where Hampton looks to connect with a group of southern whites. Maybe I'm being extremely cynical, and I know nothing of King's politics, but this felt a bit centrist in tone to me even if it was clear what Hampton's intentions were in reality. A film littered with missed opportunities does not make such mistakes with its performances and highlighting the disgraceful treatment of the Panthers by law enforcement and the FBI.

But, again, we know this. My takeaway here is that King almost ends up doing Hampton a disservice in him not weeding out O'Neal early on considering the clearly suspicious behaviour that he exhibits and gets away with. This is entertaining but that's not really what I wanted from this.

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