Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

I was surprised and delighted to see the opening of Judas and the Black Messiah that presumably existed to give a primer to those less informed of the existence of the Black Panther Party composed of footage from Agnès Varda's 1968 short documentary Black Panthers. I would have been even more delighted had Varda been credited in some way, but considering that she, to my memory, doesn't appear on camera in the short, I suppose it's forgivable. Either way, what made this so immediately appealing is that, of all the contemporaneous material the filmmakers could have chosen to make up this overview, they aligned themselves with Varda's documentary, which appears outwardly neutral given that it depicts a U.S.-centric organization and was directed by a French woman, but is nevertheless consciously aligned with Panthers by way of how Varda provides little to no influence or interruption to their words or actions as they appear in the documentary.

Of course, Judas and the Black Messiah doesn't depict the same individual circumstance as Varda's Black Panthers. Instead of Huey Newton in Los Angeles, the film is a biographical depiction of Fred Hampton in Chicago, as told from the perspective of William O'Neal acting as an informant for the FBI. The two would make fitting companion pieces, as the film is less concerned with Hampton himself as it is the conspiracy against him and the Black Panther Party as a whole that occurred at federal, state, and local levels, which is a truth that never gets any easier to swallow and I'll give the film credit for capitalizing on my persistent disgust that this level of organized neo-fascism was able to permeate the system in the first place in a way that didn't feel completely manipulative.

Granted, I don't need a film to make me feel this way. These are emotions that exist independently of cinematic depiction of their historical roots, so I am inclined to not overcredit the film for evoking an emotional response in me that literally anyone could just by uttering the phrase "COINTELPRO", because outside of that is a film that follows a fairly standard biopic formula, being largely driven by a few great lead performances from seasoned actors and being quite competently made in terms of direction and cinematography.

As politicians in the United States become more and more transparent in their attempts to sow division, voices of equity like Fred Hampton become more and more important to me, and while Judas and the Black Messiah is indebted to more contemporary biopic tropes than I believe it realizes and could have benefited from more detail about Hampton, I'd rather see them manifested in service of historical figures whose rhetoric at least has the possibility of challenging someone's political and ethical perspective (see also: Steve McQueen's Mangrove) and perhaps informs them in the direction of non-fictional sources rather than another glittery distraction about another fucking musician.

(Mid) 7 / 10 - Good

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