Judas and the Black Messiah (2021, Shaka King)

Judas and the Black Messiah has some third act problems. They end up drawing too much attention to LaKeith Stanfield’s character—the Judas—not having enough, well, character. Especially since director King uses footage of the real guy (it’s a true story) in the denouement, after opening the film with Stanfield in old age makeup playing the guy in the footage.

The film’s about Fred Hampton (The Black Messiah, played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Bill O’Neal (Stanfield). Hampton was the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. O’Neal is the FBI informant who aided in his murder. In 1989, O’Neal gave an interview for Eyes on the Prize 2 where he explained his informant status and complicity in the murder. The entire transcript is available online, with King using some of the unaired footage, which suggests he had access to the whole thing. Only O’Neal—in the interview—utterly copped out on accepting any responsibility for being a Judas. And the film doesn’t empathize with him about it, severely knocking down the effectiveness of Stanfield’s performance and even story arc. Particularly since—after an action beat—instead of seeing Stanfield’s reaction, the film uses Jesse Plemons’s white FBI guy as the scene protagonist. Basically once we get a scene of Martin Sheen in J. Edgar Hoover makeup being a scumbag and Plemons deciding he’s going to go along to get along, that plot line starts going downhill.

It unfortunately coincides with Hampton’s temporary release from jail, which has King shifting the perspective on his storyline from Kaluuya to Dominique Fishback, as Kaluuya’s conflicted girlfriend. So. Third act problems. The film’s able to do a last minute save thanks to the historical facts, which it presents on title cards (though, given Stanfield’s narrating from go and then the title of the film, it might’ve been better with the cards at the beginning versus the end); King does that ever precarious move in the biopic of bringing in the real people. It works thanks to Fishback’s person’s future, but also—and more complicated—Fred Hampton footage. The title cards draw attention to Hampton’s age at the time of his assassination—twenty-one—though Kaluuya’s not twenty-one. And Stanfield’s not twenty-one either. So there’s this biopic-y feel all of a sudden; it doesn’t have long enough to be problematic (would it have been better with age appropriate leads, et cetera) because of the real Hampton footage.

It’s impossible to have someone—anyone—play Fred Hampton. Even with the magic Kaluuya makes in his performance, it’s nothing like the actual Fred Hampton. Even in a thirty second clip, it’s clear he’s singular and the tragedy of the story punctures the soul. So King manages to all of a sudden go unsteady with the real O’Neal footage—basically using it to cop out to not giving Stanfield a fuller character—then to immediately ratchet it tight with the rest of the title cards and the Hampton close. Even if the Hampton close does Kaluuya no favors. Between the actors and the truth, King chooses the latter.

Otherwise, Judas and the Black Messiah is spectacular.

Until the second Sheen scene—Sheen opens the film lecturing to an auditorium of FBI agents about the dangers of Black people getting rights (generally getting rights; he gets specific in the scene opposite Plemons later) and it’s unclear he’s J. Edgar Hoover, unless the makeup was supposed to be a giveaway—but until that second Sheen scene, it’s Kaluuya’s film. Stanfield and his occasional narration and his meeting up with Plemons is just the narrative angle on introducing Kaluuya and the Black Panther chapter.

Kaluuya transfixes. He starts quiet in a speech to a college—where he meets Fishback and she plants the seeds to their romance, which is fantastic throughout—getting louder and louder until he sort of projects out of the screen. It’s one of the great performances from go, with Kaluuya capably handling his reduced presence and King’s revised narrative distances. But he’s the film. Even when he’s no longer the film, he’s the film. Right up until reality crashes in.

Stanfield’s good but it’s a bland part. Everyone else in the Panther party is better, starting with Fishback, but also supporting players Ashton Sanders and—especially—Albee Smith. Smith ends up with the most consistently tracked arc (versus Stanfield’s arc really being Plemons’s, Kaluuya’s transferring to Fishback) and it’s phenomenal. Darrell Britt-Gibson gets to play the sturdy sidekick guy throughout and is ever reliable. Great cast, great performances. King does really well with his actors.

Technically, it’s always outstanding. Sean Bobbitt’s photography is great, Craig Harris and Mark Isham’s score, Kristan Sprague’s editing, Sam Lisenco’s production design is excellent. Judas always looks, sounds, and moves great.

Okay, minus the Sheen and FBI stuff. King doesn’t know how to do the bad guys winning.

Judas is a big, gut-wrenching success for Kaluuya, Fishback, and King.

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