Judas and the Black Messiah ★½

Judas and the Black Messiah is not, nor was it intended to be, primarily the story of Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers. Those elements essentially serve as background noise to the story that King & the Lucas Bros are actually trying to tell here: a 'sprawling crime epic' about William O'Neal (the Judas in question), Roy Mitchell (his FBI agent), and the white power structure itself in the form of the FBI.

If you have any qualms with those statements, I invite you to the words of King—who had to be asked by Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins to include more of Hampton’s life in the first place (it shows)—and the Lucas Bros. The latter of whom seem quite focused on everything from white evil to white executives and using violence to teach white audiences, but not quite anything pertaining to Black life. 

So it goes.

While my ire with JABM mostly rests with its lack of political bite, I find that point to be a redundant one when discussing Hollywood filmmaking. I won't congratulate King for making concessions to get this made within the studio system, as that would more or less amount to praising him & the Lucas Bros for effectively "selling" Fred Hampton to the white executives whose horror stories line their press statements. But I will do my best to look at Judas and the Black Messiah as the piece of entertainment it sets out to be.

King's direction—assuming camera placement was put under his jurisdiction here—is probably my first point of contention. His shots seem to move listlessly, completely underselling each moment with rote coverage and economy while he saves his energy for the heavy-handed movements and big set pieces. This is most apparent in the scenes between Hampton and Johnson, which are either bone dry (when Hampton leaves prison) or suffocating to watch (when Johnson reads poetry). The best, it seems, that King can offer these characters in terms of interiority and intimacy are Sean Bobbit's well-lit close-ups. And even in the vacuum of those shots, their conversation either centers on, or is interrupted by, King cutting to a louder instance of political revolution—a la Queen & Slim

Which brings me to my next point.

I have full faith in the acting abilities of Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, and Dominique Fishback (whom I love in Random Acts of Flyness), but they're completely under-realized here. Kaluuya feels like a version of Fred Hampton that is never allowed to leave the podium. The lack of Hampton's humanity beyond his iconography—which, in turn, weakens both his politics and his iconography—causes Kaluuya's performance to become borderline cartoonish. Even in his romantic life he's stuck polemicizing, or worse, "romantically" polemicizing to Fishback’s Johnson. Despite sharing nearly equal screen-time with O’Neal, Hampton’s life plays out in cliff notes—ultimately lacking the investigative flourishes granted to the psyche of the former.

Stanfield's performance is better, if a bit uneven due to the invented drama here. In an attempt to imbue O'Neal's character with convictions that he didn't really have until all of this was over, King and co. have somehow undercut the dramatic irony of his entire story. Rather than realizing that he's been used and nearly discarded by his handler in the end, we get a much weaker arc and performance from Stanfield having to "ramp up" his guilt complex for the audience (the elements are there, they’re just paced poorly). It results in a lukewarm nightmare sequence invented by the screenwriters rather than something more on-theme. O’Neal, candid as he is in his final interview, says he did not poison Hampton—in spite of the barbiturates found in his system. Rather than damming him (further) in a Zodiac-esque move, why not make the conspiracy more intimate than either we or O’Neal could ever realize? Isn’t that what this is about? White power, or something?

I'll cut this short by saying that, bluntly, what unites all of the performances here is caricature. Everything and everyone in this world—a Chicago that, while absolutely integral to this story, barely features or is felt within it—feels closer to an outward impression or a "mood" rather than a unique vessel principally carrying the spirit of each character. 

This is moreso a fault of the narrative than any one individual. With so much focus placed on the FBI as a narrative device meant to explain things away, its easy to see how all of this ends up feeling—and especially ends up ending—like a book for bad readers. It’s a largely perspective-less trojan horse for a revolutionary who, frankly, deserved much, much better.

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