Not everyone knows about the Black Panther Party or the name Fred Hampton (as evidenced by my asking a nurse about the upcoming film, to which he asked blankly, “Who?”). Though lauded as an Oscar contender—as it should be, at least for Daniel Kaluuya’s charismatic performance— Judas and the Black Messiah will leave similar questions on audiences’ minds: who? what? and why?
The film is a true story about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), head of the Black Panther Party, and William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a member tapped to act as an FBI informant. Though initially being heralded as a Hampton biopic, this feels more like a snapshot of a particular section of their lives when they all converge.
The acting is sensational. Both LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya give knockout performances. Their innate talent onscreen is aided by a strong screenplay and they bring the dialogue to life. The scenes between Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s love interest Deborah Johnson, are warm, inviting and loving, and feel far too brief in this film. Ashton Sanders and Algee Smith also shine in their brief roles. However, the film feels like it is trying to accommodate multiple voices or focal points, and in the end has a blurring effect among all.
The directing, by Shaka King, is good at times, but others—especially scenes of violence—feel too in-your-face in a time where many of us are exhausted. The film feels of an ilk with Queen & Slim or Promising Young Woman thanks to scenes of violence lacking real purpose. Albeit, this could be a reflection of how tired I am of seeing us killed and abused, even if it is a true account.
The film alternates focus between Hampton and O’Neal, but this uncertainty leads to a muddled film unable to do justice to each of its leads. (This despite the brilliance of Kaluuya.) If this film aims to give a glimpse of two people, it does not succeed; it ends up being about what happened to them rather than who they were.
It also felt like the film pushed to be about the Black Panther Party overall, spending too much time with other characters in a film already over two hours long. Picking a focus and trimming away all excess would have helped. Judas and the Black Messiah struggles because it feels like the film is figuring out what it wants to be rather than presenting what it is. It’s an attempt at something rather than being.
The story was written by Keith and Kenneth Lucas and the screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King. The dialogue throughout the film is strong. There are powerful conversations that will stick with you. But the best part of the film is the acting that brings those conversations to life. Despite my grievances with how the violent scenes were handled, Kaluuya depicts Hampton so masterfully—with wisdom and pathos—that at times you will forget the scenes of violence…until they occur again. Kaluuya deserves far more accolades than he has received thus far. However, this year and this role may be his year.
We’ve had a few years of police brutality cases, of BLM, and the last thing we want to see after witnessing a video of a man begging for his life is a film showing us what we have long surmised—that our lives are worth little. Most of the violence, despite many parts being true, feels unnecessary to driving the story. I heard a phrase repeatedly used about this film as “Oscar bait,” and that seems to be the answer to who this film was intended for.
For those interested in watching, watch it. There is good here, but brace yourselves for some pain and sorrow; ultimately, my issues with Judas and the Black Messiah could just be due to our current climate. I’m tired of violence against us portrayed onscreen, no matter the reason. I’m tired of seeing a white writer or director attached to our stories because it always leaves me wondering how much control our creators had in the final product I’m viewing. Part of me loves the film, thanks to Daniel Kaluuya especially. And the other part is just tired.