It’s wrong to call writer/director Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah “Scorsese-esque.” Not because the FBI double-agent schtick doesn’t scream Marty, but because there are far too many Black people and women with speaking roles. Another big difference is that instead of getting muddled in more murky mafioso moral quandaries, Black Messiah puts forth a clear and potent thesis: The American government spent the soul of a Black man to thwart the rise of true Black liberation. It’s no zoom in on a literal rat, but it sure seems more important.
Legions of white folks like me simply do not know enough about the Black Panthers. Cinema-as-education is a solution so imperfect, only America would turn to it. For better or worse, Black Messiah works as a history lesson and as a tense betrayal opus in which the only thing whiter than the federal agents conspiring to commit murder are the knuckles of audiences. Daniel Kaluuya is Fred Hampton, the head of the Black Panthers in Illinois and deputy chairman of the national party. An orator whose speaking style pops and shudders with verbal violence, his bombastic rhetoric was eclipsed only by his dedication to real, meaningful freedom for his oppressed people. You know the FBI wasn’t about to have that…
LaKeith Stanfield is Bill O’Neal, who agreed to infiltrate Hampton’s inner circle to avoid jailtime for grand theft auto. Jesse Plemons is Roy Mitchell, a subtly sinister prick, a niche character role Plemons has staked complete ownership over. Mitchell is O’Neal’s handler. All he wants is to make FBI poppa J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) proud. Thus, it doesn’t matter that the government’s methods grow more explicitly evil, nor that Deborah Johnson (Dominque Fishback) is pregnant with Hampton’s child. All that matters is white supremacy, which may as well be America’s unofficial slogan.
Black Messiah is without a single, solitary shitty performance. From the titular roles to literally every extras, the film trembles with talent. That’s as much a credit to King’s direction as much as to the casting and actors. Kaluuya deploys the best kind of biopic delivery: It echoes the real Hampton without feeling like a labored impression of him. Stanfield was given the less-flashy, more demanding role. The script from King and Will Berson doesn’t toss him many meaty monologues about his inner strife. His descent into hell is glimpsed through his eyes as windows, through clenched teeth, muted flinches, and clipped sentences.
Although wanting more is not the worst complaint, Black Messiah pulls up irritatingly short at least twice. Fishback is so electric, not granting Deborah more space and autonomy outright hurts. Similarly, maybe it’s that the film was actually shot in Cleveland, but Chicago is sorely missed. That is to say, the impact of Hampton and the Black Panthers on the broader Black community is implied more than illustrated. The narrow, microscopic examination of the two men in orbit before collision is compelling as hell. Still, outside of a few brief Hampton speeches and rallies, his footprint is mostly felt as descriptions falling out of Hoover’s mouth. And painful things should be going into that mouth, not coming out of it.
If the worst thing that can be said about a movie is that it maybe should have been an hour longer and given even more space to its flawless cast, that’s a goddamned good movie. Judas and the Black Messiah is a goddamned good movie that hopefully launches a thousand Google searches into fundamental moments and concerns about Black liberation. A few of those will certainly be mine.
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Lawrence Ware at the New York Times asks whether Judas and the Black Messiah is “The Most Radical Film Ever Produced by Hollywood?”
Roxana Hadadi of Polygon has one of the few negative reviews, but man is it good. She targets the perspective, saying “King has put together a film that honors Hampton as an icon. But by viewing him primarily through the lens of his detractors rather than his champions, he’s guaranteed an uneven execution.”
K. Austin Collins at the Rolling Stone has one of the better reviews of any kind I have read in ages, tackling the problems of “film as history teller,” and ultimately concluding “It is a bittersweet compliment to what’s here that we end the film wishing it’d done even more.”
Jonita Davis at The Black Cape Magazine says the film is “vital” and applauds its complex depictions of its characters.
Kelechi Ehenulo at Jumpcut Online says it is one of the best films of 2020, and it’s hard to argue.