chavel’s review published on Letterboxd:
I cannot go back in time and change what my thoughts were in my teens when it came to the Black Panther party. Somehow the media painted a picture in my young mind that it was a party of anarchists looking to cause havoc in society with no clear directives. Slowly there were a number of documentaries I came across to help bridge my understanding. Then feature films in more recent years like "BlacKkKlansman" especially perceived the Panthers promoting solidarity, intellectual elevation and anti-establishment rebellion. Also now is Judas and the Black Messiah, another one that proclaims how the Black Panthers had a positive social agenda to bring disbursements and relief to their urban neighbors, as well as strengthen their stature while black America were oppressed minorities. If there was any violence that combusted at all, it was because FBI and police were the agitators and the Panthers in every case had to resort to self-defense.
Without a doubt this Shaka King film, despite over-stylized cinematography where I'm mentally counting light filters, is conscience-raising and is filled with a number of pieces of indispensable information. Yet it forces me to bring a long dormant gripe out of my critic's bag, a critic's cliché that I haven't used in any of my last thousand reviews: As a film it's uneven.
Daniel Kaluuya is indeed responsible for bringing thunder to the real life Panther folk hero Fred Hampton. And it's true that he's given shades of a personal life that is, in shades, illuminating. Yes, without hesitation Kaluuya ignites fire effortlessly here. But it's greatness in a vacuum, a dramatization that could have had so much more breadth to it.
Basically, Hampton speaks at a number of indoor functions, gets a girlfriend, is arrested on fraudulent charges (we never learn if his prison stint radicalized his thoughts to an even further degree), is given clumsily written scenes in how he befriends a mysterious Judas type, and, uh, speaks to more small crowds. We never get a sense of how Hampton electrified and inspired whole Illinois inner city communities; we never sense a coalition of black power amongst ordinary black peoples having had themselves some raised consciousness. There's documentary footage at the end credits of the real Hampton, and I wish more of that kind of political activism had been dramatized.
The gifted LaKeith Stanfield is quite something, too, as William O'Neil, a small-time criminal who evaded criminal justice by becoming an FBI informant. O'Neil's story is tragic in how he was a used pawn, but there's way too much story on him and the behind-the-scenes prejudicial influence of J. Edgar Hoover, that gives Hampton's story less shrift. Jesse Plemons is an FBI man made to coerce O'Neil into entrapping his friends, and Martin Sheen as Hoover goes overboard with painting Hampton and company as villains simply because intelligent thinking within black communities was dangerous -- they have some interesting scenes of bigotry, but damn, do we really have to know a surplus on them instead of knowing more about Hampton?
Judas and the Black Messiah is by all means an important film, but I all too easily felt too much of Fred Hampton and his Marxist-Leninist thinking got left out. The definitive Fred Hampton biopic has yet to be made.