Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

With scorching political relevance and transfixing performances, Judas and the Black Messiah takes the viewer to the minds of a dedicated activist and a conflicted man with uncertain morals. Fred Hampton made a name at such a young age, leading the Illinois Black Panther Party with his revolutionary Socialist views and thunderous public speaking prowess. Revolutionaries, cops, and FBI agents engage in this convoluted web of rivalries and betrayals, which takes lives and principles but ultimately pushes the boundaries of civil rights.

Daniel Kaluuya is a commanding force as Hampton, grounding the larger-than-life personality into a man finding the right balance between his simple dreams to build a family and his exigent ambitions for his community. While Kaluuya has probably the showiest material in the film—and all of his scenes, although quite sparse and limited in depth, are stellar—it is Lakeith Stanfield's subtle interpretation of the divisive persona of William O'Neal that lingers beyond the screen.

Stanfield pours out the contradictions in his character through his highly expressive eyes as if there is something menacing eating his soul and tearing his principles apart. Dominique Fishback is also a stunner, providing emotional depth and a human soul in the sequences of hopeful activism and complete terror.

Shaka King's film has gripping and tragic shootout moments and uplifting political rallies that almost fuel your desire to join and raise your fists with the revolutionaries. However, it seems like the film needs more of these highlights, maybe a genuinely thrilling montage with rousing music or a deeply emotive conversation between the two leads. The film falls short in matching the emotional peaks of Selma or the stirring immediacy of the editing and writing in BlacKkKlansman.

Stanfield attempts to provide dimensions to O'Neal which was not given utmost primacy by the writing. There is not much that elaborates the motives and backgrounds of O'Neal. When the film concludes, the "what did O'neal do?" question was definitely answered but the whys are scantily filled. While narrative hiccups and inconsistent pacing do not undermine the film's potent message and filmmaking craftsmanship, it holds back the film from actually reaching greatness.

Maybe it will grow on me more on a rewatch. We'll see.

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