Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

Kind of sad that the general first reaction to the announcement that they're making a "Fred Hampton biopic" is "fuck, I hope they don't gloss over his politics and completely portray him in a negative light and portray the Panthers as a terrorist organization."

Although the film is a promising first step in the direction of a large studio like Warner Brothers taking a chance on a mid-budget "risky" film that portrays police and the FBI (who will now be strictly referred to as pigs from now on) in a rightfully damning light as inhuman and disgusting fascists and the Black Panthers as community organizers trying to build a better future for their community when the government is so hellbent on making it worse.
Thankfully, this is not the weak point of the film. In fact, they have a lot of positive socialist rhetoric straight from the mouths of Che and Mao that could interest audiences to do more research into socialism and communism.

When it comes to the characters, however, the film lacks in strong character moments that really delve deep into the complex psyche of the two parallel characters this film seems to want to focus on. What is Hampton thinking in certain situations? Why is he doing this? What got him into communist theory? What about the countless other programs he founded with the Rainbow Coatlition and how he formed and strengthened the relationships with the Young Lords and Young Patriots?

We see him make a few great speeches and rally people behind his cause, and it's played with unquestionable gravitas from Kaluuya. But that leads to another problem with the portrayal; Hampton was 21 years old when he was assassinated. Kaluuya is 31.
Hampton was able to create so much and achieve so much at such a young age, and it makes his murder so much more tragic and heartbreaking learning that he was barely old enough to legally drink alcohol. We lose a lot of that in the age discrepancy, although Kaluuya is giving an outstanding performance.

One moment that really sticks out to me, which is something that I think the film is desperately asking for, is the scene where Fred Hampton is looking at a newspaper clipping of the Emmett Till murder and he reveals to his partner Deborah Johnson (played by a great Dominique Fishback) that his mother used to babysit Emmett Till and that Till and his family lived across the street from them growing up. When Hampton eventually saw the horrifying image of Till's broken and beaten body, that's what eventually lead him to be an activist.
THAT's the kind of scene that needs to the more prevalent throughout the film. It brings dimensionality to his character, helping us as the audience understand why he does what he does.

William O'Neal is no different. Yeah, he needs money. But he also seems to be very conflicted and eventually seems to regret being an informant. Jesse Plemons's FBI Agent even says "I saw you there and you either should be nominated for an Academy Award, or you actually believe all of it."
But there aren't any scenes that he has that give any credence to these statements or moments of regret. He keeps wanting more and more money, and is increasingly paranoid that he'll get killed, but there's nothing to suggest he believes in the Rainbow Coalition or anything at all other than himself. He doesn't even seem to have any moments of tenderness between him and Hampton to really strengthen that relationship. He just comes off as a selfish, nothing character.
With all of this in mind, realize that like the Hampton/Kaluuya discrepancy, O'Neal was a 19 year old kid. Isn't it fucked up that the FBI blackmailed a teenager infiltrate the Black Panthers and used him to kill someone that the kid grew to idolize? We lose a little bit of that in 29 year old Stanfield's portrayal, while great, getting an unknown teenage actor would've brought some built-in depth to the character.

Being blackmailed and giving more deep character moments (like the Emmett Till scene) would've given O'Neal's eventual fate some weight, and would've given believability to the FOIL that Shaka King is trying to create between Hampton and O'Neal.

Most of the film focuses on the violent conflict between the pigs and the Panthers and not enough on the community programs Hampton and the Panthers created, feeding children and organizing schools. In fact, all of the great things the Panthers did kind of stops cold about halfway through the film in favor of thrilling shoot outs with pigs. That, I think, is a damaging mistake that could've been avoided with more of a balance and more in-depth look at the organizations that Hampton created.

Honestly this film could've been a three hour epic, adding more and more character and political depth and it would've made it that much more compelling.

Sean Bobbitt's unsurprisingly stunning gritty '70s inspired cinematography is something to behold and the way Shaka King is able to blend camera and editing to create some thrilling sequences is almost masterful.

But it unfortunately becomes a “the bad guys win, and that’s what happens when you fight back” narrative that really ends devoid of hope, which makes me think “then what’s the point of this movie?” It’s going against everything Hampton fought for.

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