Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★½

It will be easy to call director Shaka King’s second feature Judas And The Black Messiah timely; unfortunately though, as the true story that inspired the movie proves, there has never been a time in the course of human history when a movie about hate, racism, bigotry, and authoritarian violence would not have been relevant.

A dramatization of a little known part of the American civil rights movement of the ’60s, the movie is centered around two people involved in the Illinois chapter of Black Panthers; its young chairman Fred Hampton - the Black Messiah - and a petty criminal called Bill O'Neal - the Judas - who infiltrates the organization at the behest of Hoover’s FBI to escape the inevitable cruelties of the American justice system.

Co-written by King and Will Berson from a story by the two and Kenneth and Keith Lucas - the actors who played the weird twins in 22 Jump Street - the screenplay does not feel weighed down by the seriousness of its subject matter. The movie is structured very much like an old-school mainstream adult drama; there’s a nice and ebb and flow to the progression of the plot; the movie contains everything from terrifyingly immersive shootouts and fiery speeches to more tender romantic moments and a surprisingly effective streak of humor.

Unfortunately, this conventionality of the structure robs the true story of many of its more bizarre and thematically challenging details, a lot of which are either glossed over in predictable plot mechanics or covered in the lengthy title cards that close the movie. It also robs the characters of their rougher edges and turns them into simpler versions of their real-life counterparts. Hampton is presented as a righteous crusader for all things true and just with very kinks to his shiny armor while O’Neal’s confused loyalties and the extent to which they took their toll on him are not as fully explored as suggested by the eventual fate of the real O’Neal.

Fortunately, though, in a Get Out reunion, he and Hampton are played by two of the most exciting acting talents of this generation, and together the two elevate the material that they have been handed on the page by giving two of the year’s best performances.

Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton is a brilliantly captivating combination of charisma, charm, and iconoclastic rage - not unlike Denzel’s Malcolm X - that makes it easy to see how the man commanded the fierce devotion of so many people. Kaluuya verbally and physically transforms into a revolutionary leader; everything from his dialect and intonation to the difference between his personal and public posture is incredibly rich in personal detail and cultural specificities. He is a performer who has this rare quality to make the audience dance to his beat, which makes him the ideal choice to bring Fred Hampton to life on screen; he emanates this wave of explosive energy tempered with a genuine compassion that, at least for the length of the runtime, sweeps you up in his ideological fervor.

This earnestness is then offset by the fidgety unease of LaKeith Stanfield and his expressive eyes. O’Neal is a very hard character to play. On the face of it, his actions were obviously detrimental to the efforts of an important voice in the Civil Rights movement. But, at the same time, he is perhaps the most empathetic person in the movie. He is exactly the systematically oppressed, economically challenged, and politically disenfranchised proletarian whose fortunes Hampton was hoping to turn around. He was a chancer but only as necessitated by a society of limited opportunities; he was a traitor but only when faced with the threat of incarceration.

A paradigm captured deftly by Stanfield; he gives physical manifestation to O’Neal’s internal confusion and conveys the conflicting loyalties of the man without the need for dramatic monologues or ponderous soliloquies. He instead constructs a fully developed portrait of O’Neal using small morsels of behavioral quirks; the way he awkwardly sinks into a couch while gracelessly chomping on a cigar, the way he hastily forks down a fancy dinner, his overt gestures of fealty to the cause, and the way his gaze darts around the room in a desperate bid to not confront the consequences of his decisions - everything in his performance comes together to reveal a truth about the character beyond just the dimensions of the frame.

Even if the frames themselves are gorgeous concoctions of light, shadow, depth, and kinetic energy conjured up by King and his cinematographer, the longtime Steve McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt. Giving Nomadland a run for its money for the title of the best shot movie of the year, Judas And The Black Messiah is a cornucopia of aesthetically dynamic photography; made up of imaginative light sources, fluid tracking shots, a dolly zoom (?), and kaleidoscopic panoramas of car interiors, the visual palette both, sets the stage for the movie’s propulsive narrative and gives texture to the period details.

More than anything though Bobbit’s camera is at its best when it is filming faces; a virtue critical to a story about identities. Not only does it frame Kaluuya as an imposing mural hanging over a town square populated by his fellow revolutionaries and Stanfield as a hesitant figure lurking in shadows, but it gives each and every member of the cast their own personal visual signature.

Most significantly, Jesse Plemon’s Roy Mitchell instantly registers as an insidious threat, his singularly rugged face lit like he’s about to regale a campsite audience with a horror story, in a kind of performance that has typecasted the actor as Hollywood’s go-to creep. Here, there is an attempt to give him an extra shade or two, but he is largely the big bad wolf, and there are few, if any, better than him than at doing that; even
when he is sharing the screen with Martin Sheen’s scenery-chewing, J. Edgar Hoover.

The rest of the cast is largely made up of relative unknowns and character actors, the most narratively critical of whom is Dominique Fishback as not only Fred Hampton’s girlfriend but also as his, and the movie’s, human center; she brings a personal touch to a story about big ideas and radical politics.

A welcome addition to a movie that is not too eager to deal with subtle emotions and is very much interested in moving from one big event to the next. But when tempered with layered performances, that same structure allows for an important message to be effectively delivered in the guise of mainstream entertainment and there is always value in doing that.

M liked these reviews