Judas and the Black Messiah energizes necessary rhetoric and is impeccably crafted, but diminishes its power by sticking so closely to a prescribed biopic template.
The provocatively titled Judas and the Black Messiah is something of a trap, one that, from the boldness of its very title, asks viewers to judge it for its ideology and righteous fury above all else. The film is an account of the events that led to the 1969 government-executed assassination of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who was then the deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party. More than most, he’s a figure whose legacy merits hagiographic treatment, and director Shaka King angles toward this precise bent — and yet the form is, by its nature, lacking in complexity. This is worth noting insofar as it’s indicative of the film’s larger failing: a complacent adherence to a fairly run-of-the-mill biopic template. Admittedly, it’s easy to understand how King, et al might have believed that the true story’s innate power could help transcend any by-the-numbers limitations. The plot is primed for a cinematic treatment, and at the center is dual core: Hampton, the high-minded revolutionary fighting against a corrupt system, and Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty criminal-turned-FBI informant looking out for number one. There’s a conspiratorial, manipulative power structure hell-bent on squashing any progressive social upheaval, and it happens to be led by one of history’s all-time, true-life villains, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, here made up so as to look like the emcee of a cabaret night). And then, of course, there is the tragic contemporary relevance of the material — at one point, O’Neal remarks, “A badge is scarier than a gun.”
So, indeed, there’s plenty of grand cinematic potential, and much of that is fulfilled in the film’s craftsmanship. DP Sean Bobbitt shuttles between haunting close-quarters images that suggest encroaching threat and wide-angle shots of bodies congregating en revolutionary masse, and Craig Harris’ horn-heavy jazz work evocatively conjures both sounds of celebration and dread. For his part, Kaluuya projects a commanding aura, vacillating between oratorical, performative bombast and delicate introspection, suggesting a depth to Hampton beyond the film’s limited scope. And it is limited, particularly for the performers who have considerably less to work with. Though both Hampton and O’Neal are each working their way through different, but related internal struggles — specifically, weighing the worth of the self versus the collective — the latter’s arc is more prescriptively sketched; where Kaluuya is able to wade into the murky, indistinct psychology of a figurehead, Stanfield only has a familiar narrative of building guilt to navigate. He manages to bring a jittery unease to O’Neal’s mounting turmoil, but ultimately, his character is just one of many instances of Screenwriting 101 holding sway. That collective is elsewhere undercut in the soft treatment of periphery characters, several of whom suffer tragedies that land with little emotional impact thanks to the characters’ mostly anonymous rendering, In fact, the most surprising narrative development comes when the script alley-oops a redemptive arc to Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O’Neal’s FBI handler, only to categorically reject such patness. Of course, this rejection comes in the form of doing nothing with him, and so he’s entirely useless to the film beyond adherence to verisimilitude and as logistical mechanism, but it’s a surprise nonetheless.
There are other moments where the film seems to tiptoe toward interesting ideas — such as when Mitchell uses horseshoe theory to compare Black Panthers and the KKK, with the dual objective of poisoning O’Neal against the BPP and diminishing the threat of hegemonic White rule in his mind — but such avenues are quickly abandoned in favor of more programmatic true-story plot machinations. It’s enough to wonder why biopics such as these continue to be made. Obviously, the discourse the film engages and encourages is necessary and potent, and the ubiquity of film provides a tremendous platform from which such important messages can disseminate, but when filmmakers do so little to disrupt the medium’s status quo — particularly irksome here given the film’s revolutionary spirit — or elevate the narrative beyond a CliffsNotes telling, they blunt much of a film’s emotional force. Seeing how little the needle has moved in the past half-century in terms of blatant, systemized racism and the insidiousness of law and order agencies is arguably the point, but in ideological and moral war, familiarity — and, it then follows, apathy — is the state’s greatest weapon. It’s unfortunate, then, that it’s also Judas and the Black Messiah’s greatest weakness.
You can catch Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah in theaters and streaming on HBO Max beginning on February 12.