Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★½

A marvelous and genuinely important film. JATBM subtly sidesteps the typical pitfalls that beset historical dramas, biopics and “Issues” films. By smartly making it a complex exploration of the multifarious ways the system breaks down and manipulates everyone to act against their best interest. It becomes less a hagiography for Hampton, and more a reframing of his life within the context of the larger struggle. A struggle that depressingly continues and impossible choices that are still being forced by an uncaring, capitalist hierarchy of exploitation and degradation. 

I’m still thinking today about the fascinating detours the film takes into considering how Hampton’s revolutionary activism effected those around him. What the real cost of trying to break the wheel and push back on occupying forces brutalizing their community had on those heroic patriots that stood up and demanded things be different. And the collateral damage wrought in the path of such necessary social upheaval. 

I love how this film doesn’t fall back on a traditional Jesus/Judas narrative, despite the title. O’Neal doesn’t want to be Hampton, he isn’t jealous of him or desirous of the dignified power with which he walks through life. He’s just trying to keep his head above water and get a car, make a little money, stay out of the hands of the law. This is how the system truly works against people. By showing them a life of luxury, ease and comfort and making them think it’s attainable without compromising your morals or your soul.

There’s this remarkable moment where a ghoulish J Edgar Hoover (portrayed here by Martin Sheen in distracting prosthetics that shouldn’t work, but totally do) is asking Plemmons’ Junior G man about his family. Then after remarking benevolently about how quickly kids grow up, asks Plemmons what he will do when his daughter brings home a black man. Plemmons, understandably mortified, responds “sir, she’s an infant.” To which Sheen’s J Edgar says that wasn’t the question and presses the issue. Plemmons is unreal in this scene. You can see the discomfort and fear washing over his face as he suddenly realizes how just as he owns Stanfield, this creep owns him. He stammers, “well...she won’t..” and both the audience and him fathom that despite every fiber of his being screaming out to tell this degenerate lump of shit that it doesn’t matter whether she brings a black man home, he simply can’t say that for fear of losing his career and his status. 

THAT is the system. This film isn’t really about the relationship between Kaluya and Stanfield. It’s about the mirroring of Plemmons and Stanfield, the delusion of the former in his gilded, scotch laden cage, imagining he’s different and somehow better off than the latter in his put upon desperation. 

Also, this is a gorgeously shot film, with Shaka King using many blocking, editing and shot compositions from horror film making to evoke the dread and hopelessness of these dangerous nights and days for his forbears on the streets of Chicago. 

Kaluya is a fucking force of nature in this film. Incendiary. The unvarnished, unblinking soul in his eyes is hypnotizing. His big speech after being released is the scene of the year thus far. Yes, it’s all fire and righteous brimstone and he’s astonishing to behold in it, but all the little nuanced moments between those in the audience playing out is what leaves a lasting, heartbreaking impression. 

The Rodney King incident turns 30 years old next month. I was a teenager when my television was inundated with that video and I watched LA burn and listened to all the whataboutism of conservatives. It could be argued that backlash against injustice is what first mobilized the radical right cretins we see out there today. Or, more likely, it’s just always been there, under the surface in this country. And we need to remember it and fight against it in whatever way we can. Probably most importantly by raising our kids to know how wrong, unjust and cowardly that mentality is. 

In any case, this is a really fucking good movie with uniformly terrific performances, a killer soundtrack, amazing atmosphere and HBO Max stepping up their game on 4K and Atmos. 

And it’s important too, so that’s nice. Even I need a little roughage in my cinematic diet from time to time.

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