Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★

Judas and the Black Messiah is an aggressively GOOD movie. I hesitate to say it’s ‘amazing’ (contrary to the average rating may suggest), but I can undoubtedly say it’s the most historically important of this year’s awards seasons. Fred Hampton, who has previously been remembered as a war criminal, is the absolute star of the film. Kaluuya is your ideal Oscar winner, rightfully so, as he commands the screen with every ounce of his emotional presence. He vibrates with tension, and he directly emulates Hampton’s physical aura of intensity perfectly. An annoying criticism being attached to his portrayal is the noticeable age gap the two have: Hampton being only 21 upon his death and Kaluuya being 35. And to that I say, did anyone have a problem when Leo portrayed a 22-year old Jordan Belfort when he himself was well into his late 30’s? Did anyone have a problem when Willem Dafoe portrayed a 37-year old Vincent Van Gogh when he was a little less than twice his age? I don’t think so. This criticism is obviously connected to the fact that Hampton was most well known for being so young when he died and casting a significantly older actor to play the part may not do his impact to the Civil Rights movement justice. But, maybe this criticism is just absurd and people need to take a step back and just accept it as a good performance and minute dilemma in the casting.

But, Kaluuya isn’t the main character; that’s Bill O’Neil. Lakeith Stanfield plays the part of somewhat of a middleman between the FBI’s ruthless attempt to control the Black Panther Party and the party itself persuading O’Neil into an opposite but better direction. Stanfield is equally as impressive as Kaluuya, despite not being as directly impactful of a character as Hampton. Personally, I don’t think one excels the other's talent; both are uniquely powerful in their characters’ personas and they are undoubtedly the best part of the film. But, this is where my problems arise. The performances are usually what the film depends on to keep it afloat; never does anything else seem to be doing the picture any deeds well enough to carry it. I mean no disrespect to anyone in the making of this movie, because I actually condemn their approach to such an admittedly risky and challenging story. Shaka King is keeping everything in place and at a steady pace, and there are sudden- but short-lived- bursts of excellence that permeate throughout. But I was never absolutely blown-away by anything. In a way, it’s “too” perfect, in the sense that nothing is necessarily wrong with it but the fact that it’s too tightly-knit leaves a lot less room for engaging discourse afterwards. I’ve talked to many of those who highly enjoy the movie (not to say I disliked it), and all they’ve said that they found specifically admirable about it was that it was… a good movie with good performances. This is why I’m so conflicted; how is this any different from any other racial-drama we’ve gotten in the past? I haven’t seen it yet, but let's give an example of another Oscar-contending movie from this year, One Night in Miami. My stance on this subgenre is that they have the potential to genuinely make a difference in the idea of giving many once frowned-upon leaders the recognition they deserve. That’s the great thing about cinema; it is power. So does a film have to be so notable that it is crucial it get made? Yes, film will always be an enjoyable artform, but does a movie ever need to be made? And with Judas and the Black Messiah, I don’t know. The story of Fred Hampton’s assasination is certainly a story worth a positive inspection, but I feel like this didn’t do him the justice he deserved.

To summarize my thoughts, I think it’s essentially a ‘flawless’ movie, but for some inexplicable, unnamed purpose, I am unable to connect with it at all. I am happy with Kaluuya’s inevitable receival of his Oscar statuette, but for the rest of the film I can safely say I am a little let down for reasons I can’t explain.

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