Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) movie review
Judas and the Black Messiah follows the true story of Bill O’Neal, an FBI informant tasked with infiltrating the Black Panther Party to gain proximity to Party Chairman Fred Hampton. The film was released just this past weekend after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this month. Judas and the Black Messiah has garnished widespread acclaim from both critics and audiences, scoring two Golden Globe nominations and moving up as a contender for the 2020/2021 Academy Awards.
Judas and the Black Messiah is not unlike many biographical films based around both events and individuals (rather than biopics following just the life of a single character). And while it is certainly one of the best films 2021 has delivered so far, it does have a few shortcomings that keep it from being a truly incredible film. However before I begin, I should emphasize that this film IS worth watching, either in theaters if you have one or on HBO Max if you don’t.
We were fortunate enough to see this one in theaters, and I am glad since this is a really good looking film! Even beyond the sharp cinematography and intense uses of framing to drive emotion, the production design and costume design were superb! And yeah there is one Oscar this film deserves more than Costume Design, but gosh it really deserves a win there too. That said, the one technical feat this film feels a bit inconsistent with was the editing. I think this has more to do with the pacing, but it often feels a little too abrupt.
Now one thing that typically sets good biopics apart from great ones is the ability to somehow perfectly craft a pace that encapsulates the events, characters, and themes without ever feeling too long or too short. This is typically an issue found in films based on more recent events, however it is also one that Judas and the Black Messiah faces. The film feels somehow too short and too long, often taking tame to focus on longer scenes of dialogue with characters just being introduces about characters who don’t feel all that important. Simply put, this film isn’t really sure what to do with its free time. Sure you could cut out much of this, but then it might feel too short and not fleshed out enough. Pad it too much and it feels bloated. It is a tough situation, but one that nevertheless did have me disinterested from time to time.
On top of that, the film has trouble deciding where it stands on violence. I sincerely appreciate the film’s ability to balance the truth that the Black Panther Party worked towards reform while also inciting violence. On top of that, it was violence heavily encouraged by law enforcement at the encouragement of the government. And this screenplay knows what the right side to land on is, while not shying away from the negative actions often brought from this conflict. However there is at least one seriously inconsistent depiction of morality, where a negative action is depicted very viscerally, followed by an attempt to justify said action. I understand the subtext (though the film could focus on it more), but it simply doesn’t land.
Now, having said all that, this was a riveting story driven by two incredible leads. LaKeith Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal might be hands down one of the most interesting protagonists in film history, and his performance reflects the constantly rising emotional conflict in him. Meanwhile Daniel Kaluuya IS Fred Hampton to a point that I kept forgetting it was Kaluuya, let alone that he is English. It is a powerful character brought to life with moving complexity in perhaps the single most Oscar worthy performance of this award season.
So while Judas and the Black Messiah has some problems both in its structure and its thematic consistency, the film is a powerful story with compelling characters and truly fantastic performances. Watch it for the startlingly accurate depiction of events, watch it for the Oscar worthy costume design and performances, or watch it because there isn’t much else to see. Either way, while I don’t think the film is as good as it could be, Judas and the Black Messiah is totally worth checking out! 7/10.
So Judas and the Black Messiah? Did you see it? What did you think? And what is your favorite event-based biography? Be sure to leave a like or a comment below and let us know! And if you liked this review and you want to read more, let us know in the comments what you would like us to talk about next!
-review by Ryan Prince