Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

This is how you do a biopic/historical picture! This type of movie requires such skill. Even when focused on the most fascinating figures or compelling stories, I often find myself bored with the genre, but here Shaka King absolutely delivers. I went in already familiar with Fred Hampton's story, but it was still completely absorbing.

King seems to strike a good balance between the cinematic and reality. In a historical film that doesn't always avoid cliches, I expected a very dramatic & graphic death (especially considering the excess of the real life event,) but instead the death happens essentially offscreen in a way that beautifully amplifies the impact of our loss.

One of my only (very small) complaints is the casting. I can't complain much because the acting is top shelf, but I do think seeing these teenagers portrayed as adults does change the effect a bit. I've always considered Hampton's youth to be one of the incredible aspects of his story, making his intelligence and charisma even more powerful and his death even more tragic. Additionally, the fact that Bill O'Neal was a literal kid (just 17 years old) when the FBI "recruited" him might speak to how much power he really had in a situation in which he was clearly coerced and manipulated.

In general, I don't love Kaluuya as Hampton. That casting is weird to me, but regarding his acting apart from that qualm, he is excellent. The complexity of William O'Neal's role is not explored as fully as I would like, and the extent to which it's effective should be credited entirely to a brilliant performance by Lakeith Stanfield. Nobody does nervous uncertainty like him, and in even the most aggressive moments the underlying anxiety and fragility fueling his character ripples just beneath the surface.

Much has been said of the nuance and depth afforded this story, and for the most part it lives up to the hype. While I'm not much for stated themes, it's hard to ignore Ms. Winters speaking of her deceased son as a murderer: "He did that, but that ain't all he did." Confronting the audience with that same message regarding Hampton, O'Neal and perhaps the Black Panthers in general is the triumph of this film.

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