Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

Despite some stirring performances from Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, Shaka King’s dramatization of the real-life betrayal of Fred Hampton by a co-Black Panther colleague feels remote and oddly incomplete. Judas and the Black Messiah has a very specific historical context within African-American history, and King manages to make its specificity resonate and universal. Part of it is not only because of the current police injustices against the Black community but also it presents this heinous act of espionage and betrayal as a personal matter.

However, King’s execution of these events is inconsistent in its tone and energy. Judas flourishes when it spotlights Hampton’s oratorical theatrics but stagnates when the film explores these characters behind closed doors. The momentum of events leading to its climax is rocky, but King’s execution in the final stretches of the film is quite resonating. The acting is decent. Kaluuya is very much the larger presence here, both commanding in Hampton’s larger-than-life and private persona. But I marveled at Stanfield’s oppressive, gloomy performance in which doesn’t give much attention to his “act of performance.” Stanfield’s more controlled, and persuasive than Kaluuya’s operatic nature. Dominique Fishback gives a warm presence but her traditional, suffering wife character doesn’t really say much of importance.

Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah has some genuine focus and clarity to its subject matter. I’m not the audience for this, but I certainly appreciate what King’s doing. It could've been more ambitious in its delivery, but the actors' performances save the day.

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