Stanley Scorsese’s review published on Letterboxd:
Well after rewatching Da 5 Bloods 2 days ago, let’s see if Judas and the Black Messiah can top that over Spike Lee’s claptrap of a film. So after 2 hours of watching it, I gave it a chance and I needed a moment to think about it. So without further ado folks, here’s my review!
Judas and the Black Messiah is based on a true story of a criminal named William O’Neal as he agrees to become an FBI informant to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and take down its chairman in Chicago, Fred Hampton.
After seeing the previews of this film when I went to see Tenet, I remembered being very curious about it. It sounded like a good historical thriller, and it was mixed with The Departed and BlacKkKlansman. I know I say I will never watch anything that looks like it will prove to be race baiting or be political. But I’m weak willed to see how good it is. So when it arrived to HBO Max and in theaters 2 days ago, my best friend and I watched it on my HBO max account before he had to work last night. And well... I will admit it’s better than Da 5 Bloods, and it’s tolerable, but it made me do some more research about Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Party, and more of the FBI’s shaky history.
I’m going to kick off the positives. The acting is fantastic! Let’s give a round of applause to Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in their roles as Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal! It’s a possibility that Stanfield is going to get snubbed at these major award associations, but to be honest, Kaluuya stole the damn show! But anyway, back to Stanfield. He plays Bill O’Neal, a career criminal who got busted for stealing a car and was given a choice by the FBI to either serve jail time or he can skip it by infiltrating the Black Panthers and it’s leader and target Fred Hampton. But he starts to become emotionally closer and closer to both of them and becomes filled with guilt and regret. Like the infamous biblical disciple. I’m not trying to compare Hampton to Christ, but that’s beside the point.
Kaluuya has been on a roll getting to play larger than life characters, and show his talent in those films! The main 2 films Get Out and Queen & Slim were incredible because of his talent! But enough of the praise, let’s talk about his character. He plays Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, Illinois. He was was a role model to the public, but he was public enemy to the FBI. The best I can describe Hampton is that he was a revolutionary socialist who was charismatic and preached about inciting cop killings or refusing to take part in violence, and instead focused on organizing community aid and a multiracial recruitment, known as the Rainbow Coalition. And Kaluuya was excellent for portraying this controversial and charismatic man!
Also the directing was fantastic, the cinematography was beautiful, and the score from Mark Isham and Craig Harris was amazing! It was great to have Sean Babbitt as the cinematographer, who in the past has worked with Steve McQueen and his 4 films. The use of jazz music in the film was so incredible I was blown away with this collaboration between Isham and Harris! Now that I’ve said all my positives, let’s get to the negatives, or mixed, feelings of the film.
I never heard of Shaka King, but from what I witnessed in Judas and the Black Messiah, he seems to have style over substance. Although I stated his directing was fantastic, he has some flaws to show that he doesn’t really have material of his own. He just seems to taken material he seen in films from Jordan Peele, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee. Also the script from Shaka King and Will Benson does jumble and only comes from a liberal point of view without any subtlety. One final thing: anyone who says this film is socially relevant is totally irrelevant. It’s just a movie that is nothing more than a historical period piece.
Overall, I thought Judas and the Black Messiah was a really good film with impactful performances from its 2 main stars, well shot cinematography, an excellent jazz-infused score, and decent directing. It was nice to see that the film earned 2 Golden Globe and 2 Critics Choice Award nominations. It won’t surprise me that it will get recognized at the Oscars, but only maybe with 2 or 3 nominations. So if you’re a history buff and you want to see this film, then by all means, go watch it in theaters! But I would suggest you should save your money and stream it on HBO Max. Next review is Freaky!
I’m giving Judas and the Black Messiah 4 stars!