REVIEW: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Daniel Kaluuya (center) as ‘Fred Hampton’ in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH — Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Directed by Shaka King — Screenplay by Will Berson & Shaka King.

Next week, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah may have become the winner of one or multiple Oscars at the 93rd Academy Awards, which, in theory, was supposed to honor the best films of 2020, in spite of the fact that this film was released in 2021. This is the result of a change to this Oscar season’s eligibility period due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, and this now means that select films released in early 2021 may also qualify to compete against 2020 films at the Oscars.

In general, this was a rule change that I am very much against as I absolutely do think that there are enough good films from 2020 that the Academy should honor, instead of adopting some odd eligibility window for the sake of giving more time to studios to release films that absolutely could’ve competed at the 94th Academy Awards instead. Regardless, I actually highly recommend Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, and, if it had been released in 2020, it probably would be one of my favorite films of that year.

Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is a biopic, which takes place in the late-1960s, that follows Bill O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield), a young man, who is arrested after having impersonated a federal officer in an attempt to steal a car. When he is apprehended by law enforcement and visibly roughed up, FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons) makes Bill an offer he cannot refuse. If Bill agrees to work for the FBI as an informant, they will drop the severe charges.

At this moment, the FBI, led by the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen), view the Black Panther Party as a terrorist organization, and so Mitchell assigns O’Neal to go undercover and infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, led by the spirited activist Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), who is also a powerful orator. O’Neal will soon be asked to do things he isn’t comfortable doing, while Hampton proves to him that he is merely an important activist doing what he can for his community and the communities of his ‘Rainbow Coalition.’

Although Judas and the Black Messiah is just Shaka King’s second film as a director, his sophomore outing looks stunning. Working with Sean Bobbitt, who teamed up with Steve McQueen on multiple films, has clearly worked wonders for King, whose film reminded me of several masters’. As a huge fan of Martin Scorsese, it almost immediately made me think of The Departed, the thrilling and propulsive crime film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture back in early 2007.

Like Judas and the Black Messiah, The Departed was a film about someone infiltrating an organization and feeding information to his superiors. Of course, unlike King’s film, The Departed, which itself was based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, features two individuals — Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio — that infiltrate each other’s organization. The major difference between it and Judas and the Black Messiah of course is that King’s film is a dramatization of something that actually happened. This is real. And exactly that makes this film feel extremely tragic.

Just like the aforementioned Scorsese film, Judas and the Black Messiah features two roles that are fairly equal in importance. This is both the Black Messiah and the so-called Judas’ film. It is Daniel Kaluuya, who is playing the film’s Black Messiah, that leaves the strongest impression. Kaluuya’s performance is powerful and stirring, and the way he speaks adds up to the heartbeat of the film. You can’t take your eyes off of him. However, while I greatly appreciate the film, I think that it feels fairly underwritten when it comes to Lakeith Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal — the film’s aforementioned Judas — whose character I don’t think you truly understand.

From time to time, King scatters or peppers in scenes from a documentary interview that takes place in the late 1980s (although this documentary actually exists, Stanfield also portrays Bill O’Neal in these scenes), but even in these scenes I don’t think you manage to actually get under his skin to understand exactly who he is. You know how conflicted he eventually is, but the character feels somewhat incomplete. With all of that having been said, I actually do think that this is merely a minor problem with the film precisely because of how good Stanfield’s nuanced performance is.

I also would’ve liked to know more about Jesse Plemons’ Roy Mitchell, who is extremely important to one of the film’s titular characters, as is evident by the aforementioned interview, and who shares one particularly memorable and frustrating conversation with Martin Sheen’s J. Edgar Hoover. Again, I don’t feel like you really know the character that Plemons is playing, in spite of Plemons’ fine performance. I think it is clear that the Fred Hampton portion of the film is more complete, as Dominique Fishback’s Deborah Johnson is much more memorable than any of the supporting characters that O’Neal primarily encounters. Soft-spoken and passionate, she is the character that really helps to specify the kind of person Hampton was behind closed doors. I loved all of Fishback and Kaluuya’s scenes together.

I thought this movie was incredible. Ultimately, what holds Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah back from being a true unforgettable masterwork is some underexplored and underwritten characters. Some may also say that it is paced in a way that is much too relaxed. But the deliberate pace does help to emphasize the tragedy at the heart of the film. These were young people just about to begin their lives as adults, but then the harsh and upsetting reality of the era in which they lived robbed them of the best years of their lives. It doesn’t matter what year it was released in, Shaka King’s sophomore outing is absolutely a must-watch film that is deservedly earning plaudits and accolades far and wide. It is a devastating film about the methods some people will use to quiet the strongest and most important voices of a generation, about the people fooled into doing the dirtywork, as well as about the importance of standing together as one. It is still just April, but, at the time of writing, it is easily the best film of the year in large part thanks to the memorable performances given by Kaluuya, Fishback, and Stanfield.

9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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