Much to its credit, Judas and the Black Messiah takes an important story and tells it with real energy. Audiences will leave the film informed and with a clear picture of the importance of the Black Panther Party and of the villainy of the Feds and the police (and other) that fought against them. The film also does right by its central figures, immortalised by a title that is a play on words spoken by the FBI – who genuinely feared a ‘Black Messiah’ figure. At the centre of the film is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the gifted orator and inspiring Chairman of the Black Panther Party, during his attempts to bring about the end of racist oppression and to enact a Socialist Revolution – a political fact that the film, pleasingly, doesn’t shy away from. The Judas of the title is Bill O’Neal, the film’s protagonist, who – after being picked up by the police for car theft and impersonating an officer – is manipulated by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, becoming an informant.
The film follows the true events and build towards an inevitable tragedy. The narrative is important and each faction and individual is shown in the right light. Martin Sheen (heavily made up, to the point of distraction) oozes eveil as J. Edgar Hoover; Jesse Plemons is sleazy and disgusting as the FBI agent (Roy Mitchell) who corrupts O’Neal; Kaluuya’s energetic performance as Fred Hampton is inspiring, yet human, and LaKeith Stanfield is astonishing. His turn shows real subtlety and sells his dual identity as a victim and an agent of oppression. He is shown as a weapon of the establishment, a dangerous thing to be, but also something used and manipulated. Sadly, the film itself does not display the same level of nuance and subtlety as his performance.
The commendable energy of the film does cut against it. This is a flashy and slick film, flashy and slick to a fault. The film frequently uses overlapping dialogue between scenes, ushering us from one to the next. This creates an engaging pace but pushes things too quickly, and does cut against a reality that the film ultimately fails to establish – for multiple reasons. There is not enough time taken for stillness or slowness, no moments of quiet or silence – not enough time to breathe. This film is imbued with a passionate, revolutionary spirit but it does not spend enough time cultivating the thought that lies underneath this. The film is dominated by impressive speeches and big personalities, but it is lacking in detailed conversation and moments of observation. This want to keep moving and keep talking cuts against character, reflection and thought. A very powerful moment towards the end, where everything is shown through focusing on an actor’s face as they react to the dramatic event, is the film at its best and, sadly, stands out from the rest of the filmic language. The majority of the film is distractingly over edited, as if a more nuanced, deeper and more challenging film – which you can see evidence off – has been sanded down in an edit. You can even feel disparate and disjointed scenes that no longer contribute to a more interesting whole.
Though it sounds like a petty complaint, the lighting and overall aesthetic really hurts Judas and the Black Messiah. Every light source in the film is as bright as can be, providing harsh, unnatural light that dominates the aesthetic. Windows are never just windows, they are rectangles of blinding light that burst into the scene, and evoke an odd unreality. There is a scene two-thirds of the way through that should be its strongest moment. We are witnessing a powerful speech form Hampton given to an equally passionate crowd. This moment, though, is diminished by aesthetic. There are lots of big windows and each is a blinding rectangle of unreality, the result of this being an over-lit and flat room that doesn’t sell reality. The approach to lighting evokes the approach of old-Hollywood noir. There, moody black and white photography would accent shafts of cascading light, giving instant atmosphere. Without monochrome, you just have bright light (that is also very static, the starkness being part of the issue) that, rather than adding atmosphere, diminishes a sense of reality. This is a minor quibble but the aesthetic exists throughout the whole film and, more often than not, when watching these harshly lit film sets I just felt like I was watching, well, harshly lit film sets.
This is all part of the flashy style that dominates the picture. It wants to be fast moving and quick talking, zooming in on iconic moments. It is probably intentional, though somewhat ironic, that this film that is so focused on Hampton – a man who wanted to empower the people – doesn’t give a sense of the people, only of a person. The politics of the film are commendable, and align with my own; the expression of these politics is not wholly satisfying. The film is like a shark, always moving forwards to stay alive. However, this constant movement means, while it covers a lot of ground, there is not enough depth. Hampton feels like an icon (appropriately so) but you don’t get a feel for the wider context, for the people that made up the struggle. This isn’t what the film is interested in doing, it wants to deal with individuals – and these are individuals worth focusing on – but then it also doesn’t give depth here. The energetic pacing takes this far away from a characters study and what we end up with is a flashy sketch of a chapter in history played at fast-forward.
There is enough here that is totally brilliant. LaKeith Stanfield especially is really phenomenal, as he always is; Kaluuya also disappears into the role and brings a humanity (and reality) that, perhaps, does not exist in the script. Ultimately, this film is very much worth watching. It stands for the right things; it is a very tough watch when it needs to be (though, this is more due to the inherently emotive nature of the content and is not accentuated through expression) and there is style. However, it is flash without grit and a story like this needs grit. Where thoroughness is warranted we have dynamism in its place. This makes this a good watch and an easy recommendation; it doesn’t make it a great motion picture.