Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Rated R, 126 minutes
Directed by: Shaka King
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH arrives at a timely moment in our country, yet its reach extends past our current social justice movement as it humanizes Black Panther figurehead Fred Hampton’s metaphorical crucifixion by a confidant. Director Shaka King’s second feature is a portrait of three male psyches, complementing and contrasting each other, capturing the history of those who betrayed the rebellious revolutionary. Its electric direction, along with its unobtrusive score and editing, engages the head and the heart. However, the material is left wanting with quite a few connective character dynamics abandoned, or altogether missing.
William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is used to stealing from his own kind. His usual scheme impersonating an officer (“A badge is scarier than a gun,” he mindfully says) catches the eye of FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), a straight-laced G-man who thinks he could turn his charge into an informant. The popularity of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the outspoken deputy chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, has been gaining momentum, encouraging uprisings in urban communities. The feds have labeled him and his progressive ideals a dangerous threat in their efforts to keep the peace. God forbid he points out the inequality in a society that oppresses them. Agent Mitchell tasks O’Neal to infiltrate Hampton’s chapter so the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen in terrible prosthetics), can bust the organization and silence its loud leaders.
O’Neal inserts himself into the Black Panther party as a lowly volunteer. His goal is to get close to Hampton, observing and working in their organization, feeding and teaching kids in the community. The enterprising, selfish snitch even negotiates a car from his handler in order to better ingratiate himself, offering his services as a driver and security captain. Hampton is busy negotiating the inner city’s precarious political scene, meeting with splintered gangs to unite them in a common cause, and could use the extra protection. As he rises in acclaim, the charismatic leader strikes up a tender romance with speechwriter Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who dreams of combining her poetry with activism. Their relationship gives Hampton necessary depth, but also bequeaths the film with a demonstrably softer side, making emotions feel more palpable.
The picture’s big set pieces are the epic and intimate sequences that showcase Kaluuya’s captivating skills as an actor, simultaneously reflected in the compelling orator he plays, capturing the audience’s attention on both levels. He knows how to go big in large crowds, but also how to dial it down, playfully flirting in scenes with Fishback, who radiates in her understated performance. LaKeith is equally entrenched in his character’s fractured psyche, although in trying capture the slipperiness of his real life counterpart, the material underwhelms, doing him somewhat of a disservice.
We hardly get the feeling O’Neal’s playing both sides of the equation. It crystallizes in the narrative’s underpinnings that he’s an unreliable narrator. It would’ve behooved screenwriters King and Will Berson (who work from a story by Keith and Kenneth Lucas) to show him more conflicted or haunted by his actions. The burden of his lies weighing on him – if they did at all – is restrained. So much so, the tempering obscures dramatic heft. His duplicity only affects him in a few spots: O’Neal is made at one meeting between the Black Panthers and the Crowns, raising some suspicion within his own party. This provides some stakes and tension. Later, paranoia about his potentially compromised identity surfaces briefly, when he’s spooked by hearing that another informant was caught and tortured. But it’s not an ongoing struggle for him. It’s abundantly clear he’s an unsympathetic protagonist whose actions hurt his community. It’s a shame the film fails to dig further into his stark contrast with Hampton, who’s practically canonized through his stirring efforts.
We also are kept waiting for the trio’s psychological and physical stakes to better intertwine – especially Mitchell and Hampton’s ideals since they’re both fighting a war to make the country a better place, just on opposite sides. Their goals are similar, only they’re both going about it wrong. We glimpse the metaphorical veil dropping on Mitchell’s blind devotion to his career and country. But there’s no change motivating him any further.
The film falls into a pattern frequently traced by other Mob Informant Movies. Perhaps had this could’ve fared better as a series, going deeper into illuminating and provocative details, character arcs and complexities. Still, the filmmakers could’ve done the same by being more efficient with their two hour plus run time. It experiences difficulties reconciling the real O’Neal seen at the end of the film with the one it portrays throughout. Maybe that’s because he was a man wrestling with his own betrayal, and he himself lost his own soul.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on February 1. It will be in select theaters and on HBOMax on February 12.