Film Review – Judas & the Black Messiah
Judas & the Black Messiah
There are two stories running through Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). The first is the “Black Messiah,” Fred Hampton, the slain chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Hampton was a charismatic and powerful figure in the 1960s, able to bring people together through his speeches and ideology. He was so influential that he founded the Rainbow Coalition, a political organization made up of different groups – black, white and Hispanic – to stand up against social injustice and discrimination. But like many prominent black leaders, the bigger Hampton’s profile became, so too did the target on his back. He soon became a threat for J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Hampton is a revelation. He balances Hampton’s skill on the podium with grace during moments of intimacy. When he speaks in front of a crowd, Kaluuya vibrates with energy, his voice booming with authority and intensity. But when he is confined into a room with a few people by his side, Kaluuya brings out his humanity. Hampton is not the monster the government painted him out to be, but one who cared deeply about his people and was willing to sacrifice his life to help them. While Kaluuya is amazing in the big, splashy scenes, his best work might be the small sequences where Hampton interacts with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a fellow Panther and his lover. Fishback is terrific in the role. Deborah is a partner and companion who believed in Hampton to this very day.
The “Judas” of the title is Bill O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. In the bible, Judas was the man who betrayed Jesus, directly leading him to his crucifixion. O’Neal is treated in much of the same way. He was a small time criminal and car thief, who got caught by the authorities and was handed over to the FBI. He was given an ultimatum – go to prison for his crimes or work with them as a mole. In an act of self preservation, O’Neal helped the FBI, infiltrating the Black Panthers and getting close to Hampton. He divulged information to authorities and also helped them do their dirty work.
LaKeith Stanfield is a versatile actor who can succeed in just about any genre. However, here the writing (Will Berson, Shaka King) does not give him enough to work with, especially since he is placed as the lead. O’Neal is simply not as interesting as Hampton. Where we get a full understanding of who Hampton was, O’Neal remains an enigma. Where Hampton is given opportunity to show warmth and personality, O’Neal is relegated to small, cold interactions with FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). We don’t get a sense of why O’Neal went along with the FBI. Was it simply to save his own hide? Did he not believe in the Civil Rights Movement or the goals of the Black Panthers? When characters go undercover, they can develop relationships with their targets, putting them in a moral dilemma. We don’t get that dynamic here. O’Neal operates often as a bystander, serving and observing Hampton from a distance. Stanfield very nearly pulls the character off with his performance, but he can only take it as far as the writing will allow him.
In terms of direction, Shaka King constructs the narrative in a gritty, documentary style approach. He starts and ends with real life footage of the time, effectively setting the tone as an active powder keg. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography makes excellent use of faces, whether they are in closeup or placed in the corner of the frame. There are moments of extreme tension, such as when O’Neal has his loyalties questioned and has to prove himself to others. One moment taking place inside of a car resonates with how close O’Neal was to being exposed. King and his team are also very good at depicting action and violence, knowing when to show the bloodshed and when to push the camera away. The best of these scenes don’t focus on the onscreen mayhem as much as the look of the characters reacting to it.
The film reaches its lowest points anytime we see Martin Sheen show up as J. Edgar Hoover. This isn’t so much an indictment of Sheen as an actor, but in terms of costuming and making up. He looks like he’s wearing a rubber Halloween mask, which impedes his ability to make the character convincing. It also doesn’t help that the writing and direction does not give him enough to do. A conversation between Hoover and Mitchell plays as the film’s most unnecessary scene. Hoover questions if Mitchell would approve of his infant daughter one day dating a black man. The effect is off putting for the wrong reasons. It’s as though the narrative is grasping to show how villainous Hoover was. He’s meant to represent the systemic racism built to stop black and brown people from gaining social power, and yet every time he’s on screen he comes off like a cartoon character.
When Judas and the Black Messiah is clicking, it flies. Kaluuya is an electric force, brimming with tenacity and magnetism. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. It’s too bad the other elements did not match him. This is a very good but imperfect film.