Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

Violence never solved anything. How many times do we have to hear this message? Well, as many times as it takes.

Every so often, Hollywood gives us two movies about the same subject within 12 or so months of each other. It happened in 2005–06 with two films about Truman Capote’s writing of “In Cold Blood” (“In Cold Blood” and “Infamous,” the latter of which has inevitably sunk into obscurity), and in 2017 with two pictures about the British evacuation of Dunkirk at the beginning of World War II (“Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour,” the likelier candidate for obscurity).

Then in 2021 it occurred again with “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (obscurity awaits!) and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” two pictures that revisit the activities of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. If you have to choose just one, the choice is fairly obvious.

When it comes to screenwriting, Aaron Sorkin is among the best working today, but his more recent interest in film direction hasn’t quite matured, which shows in his “Trial of the Chicago 7." “Judas and the Black Messiah,” meanwhile, is only Shaka King’s second feature directorial effort, but this is clearly his story to tell. His effort is a remarkably confident undertaking.

Its dual focus is on Fred Hampton’s short-lived leadership of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party on the mean streets of Chicago at the close of the 1960s, and the inner torments of a BPP informant working for the FBI. In this duality, the movie can feel a lot like “BlacKkKlansman 2,” a follow-up to Spike Lee’s 2018 film about a Ku Klux Klan infiltrator in Colorado Springs during the early 1970s. “Black Messiah” doesn’t have the raw energy and charged racial attitude of a Spike Lee joint, but it features considerably more narrative discipline, possibly too much.

“Black Messiah,” while accomplished, isn’t flawless. Lakeith Stanfield, as informant William O’Neal, is nicely anxious and jittery, while Daniel Kaluuya is a force to be reckoned with as the bombastic, larger-than-life Hampton. But the film’s arc is ultimately quite conventional. This picture is not as radical as you may have been led to believe, and I wish it wasn’t so intent on painting inside the lines at every turn.

A small complaint, although my annoyance grew as the movie continued — Kaluuya isn’t the first British actor to affect an American Southern accent that comes out borderline incomprehensible. Fully a quarter of what Kaluuya utters in this film is muddled.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover pops up occasionally in the person of Martin Sheen, and is fairly disgusting; Jesse Plemons is predictably understated as a G-man underling. We’re reminded that the FBI considered the Black Panthers a domestic terrorist organization, completely understandable given that the BPP didn’t just talk about killing “pigs.” But the FBI’s methods were a touch heavy-handed to say the least.

We would do well to recognize that just a few short years ago a movie about a controversial, militant group like the Black Panthers, brought to us by filmmakers who are best suited for telling such a story, would never be allowed to achieve a profile as broad as “Judas and the Black Messiah” has been given. It fully merits such a platform.

Letterboxd Review No. 404

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