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Sundance 2021 ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Review: A Stylistically Ambitious, Ingeniously Performed Story of Unsettling Consequence

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

During the post-screening conversation for Judas and the Black Messiah at this year’s Sundance, director Shaka King described the Lucas Brothers’ initial concept for this film as “The Departed in COINTELPRO.” This comparison, to a terrifically twisty, high-adrenaline crime story, and this proposed context, the FBI’s obsessive and pernicious mission to asphyxiate increasingly popular grassroots movements for radical change, sets the tone perfectly for the piece of work King and his team have crafted. 

That is, in all the ways this combination can spark a curiously engaging marriage of tones and dynamics, the film soars. The greatest achievements of Judas and the Black Messiah lie in its intermeshing these elements — the film excels at adeptly blurring the lines between personal drama, pulp crime tale, and dedicated document of under-appreciated Black Panther Party history. It’s exciting, it’s filled with incredible, memorable performances, camera flourishes, costumes and set designs, and nifty references to specific details peppering the 1969 Chicago setting. It’s unquestionably a must-watch project of 2021.

However, equally, in all the ways the conceptual combination might cheapen or distract the retelling of such pressing and important real-life events, the film intermittently balks. It’s an ambitious concept, and certainly an impressive piece of work, but one that requires a hefty amount of critical thinking on the part of the viewer. This is a very good thing, of course – what are we but drones if we can’t interpret cultural items with a critical eye? – but for all the incisive clarity within this film there are some wider concerns that it leaves conspicuously unaddressed. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As its outstanding trailer and promotional materials have made clear, the ‘Black Messiah’ in question refers to Fred Hampton, aka Chairman Fred, leader and champion of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was relentlessly targeted and eventually murdered by the FBI. The Judas role (an uncannily appropriate parallel) is embodied by Bill O’Neal, a young man cornered by a sadistically resourceful FBI agent and forced to inform on Hampton’s activities. With the celebrated Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, the celebrated Lakeith Stanfield as O’Neal, and the celebrated Jesse Plemons as FBI Agent Mitchell, it would have taken a miracle for Judas and the Black Messiah to turn out lacking in the acting department. Sure enough, all three are exceptionally talented in their parts, each representing both a compelling individual perspective and more complex microcosms of wider ideologies. Hampton the unflinchingly progressive communitarian, O’Neal the unaffiliated individualist, and Mitchell the manipulative, misguided harbinger of conservatism. 

The film places these men and their compatriots in a compelling setup, pitting the unambiguously malevolent forces of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI against Hampton’s steadfastly humanistic leadership of the Black Panther Party. Brilliantly informative scenes in which Kaluuya’s Hampton illustrates the Party’s credos of self-discipline, independent thought, and community guardianship are pitched towards conclusively exonerating this group from any remaining small-minded misinterpretations of their militancy – certainly a valiant move. And yet this script also leaves commendable space to acknowledge the ambiguities and schisms within each camp, and utilizes O’Neal’s experiences interacting with both of them to demonstrate their deeper complexities. Mitchell may be a callous tool of oppression in almost every sense, but Plemons also plays him with some notable glimmers of discomfort with his draconian role. Within the Party, too, though Chairman Fred inspires almost everyone around him to follow and echo his words and ideologies, certain ideas are challenged as increasingly daunting oppositions arise, leading to some compelling discussions on how the Party should perceive itself. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Naturally, the question of the Party’s proximity to violence are ripe for nuanced discussion, which Judas and the Black Messiah incorporates with commendable clarity. As various members of the group become embroiled in violent confrontations with the police for myriad reasons throughout the film, each moment questions this facet of the Party’s approach, even as the morally bankrupt, terroristic actions of the Chicago police prove much more destructive than anything these revolutionaries would comfortably initiate. This consideration culminates in a thrilling shootout outside the Party headquarters, but strikes its emotional peak after young Black Panther member Jake Winters is killed during an extended conflict with vengeful police. Hampton meets personally with Winters’ mother, played by Alysia Joy Powell, and their one-on-one scene proves an exceptional showcase of both performers’ breathtaking talent and the film’s reverberating compassion for its subjects.

Indeed, the behind-the-scenes collaboration with real-life individuals close to the events further imbues Judas and the Black Messiah with an urgency and authenticity the story deserves. Both Fred Hampton Jr. and Hampton’s widow Akua Njeri (played with a stunning grace by Dominique Fishback in the film) were involved in the film’s conception and creative process. However, despite their involvement, the film strikes a few odd notes regarding the real-life events – first and foremost, the stunning fact of the key players’ ages. Hampton was only 21 years old when he was killed, and though Kaluuya plays the part with his characteristic dimensionality and intelligence, the 31-year-old actor cannot help but misdirect the viewer from this essential fact. What’s more, O’Neal was only seventeen when he was first entangled in these nefarious schemes, and though Stanfield is brilliantly jittery and conflicted in the final product, this aspect of the story’s immense gravity seems to have been strangely ignored – a curious and tantalizing decision. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

That said, the rest of the film is simply filled with engrossing and essential dimensions, observations, aesthetics, and performances. Even beyond Kaluuya and Stanfield’s compelling central performances, the film boasts a jam-packed supporting ensemble, including Martin Sheen as an openly racist, almost rabidly murderous Hoover, Fishback’s tender and observant turn as Njeri (née Deborah Johnson), and striking appearances from Ashton Sanders, Lil Rel Howery, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Khris Davis (also of Atlanta fame), and more. On that note, King and his collaborators have done an exceptional job overall in incorporating myriad elements into this piece without making the film feel overloaded. Its various internecine subplots and interweaving historical narratives rarely feel rushed or convoluted, and the moral and societal stakes are always vividly, tragically apparent despite the film’s lofty ambitions. 

Perhaps, however, this slickness is itself the confounding issue with Judas and the Black Messiah – what makes it very good, but hard to call great. Something just feels all too clean-cut about the proceedings. While its confrontational, clear-eyed condemnations of police violence and its exultation of productively radical ideologies are wonderful aspects, many of its elements come off as overtly marketable, and surprisingly unchallenging to digest. The combination of omitting their true age (until the very, very end), sanding off a few too many edges of the real events, and underplaying certain moments where a ribald intensity may have been preferable to King’s generally distanced form of direction, renders the experience almost too accessible, if you will, given the staggering horror of the true story. In truth, I find it difficult to say for sure. This film is certainly deserving of acclaim and a very wide viewership – but its internal complexities must be diligently pondered in order to do the real-life subject matter a suitable degree of justice. 

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