It’s always a monumental task to deliver an American Civil Rights movie, but when it’s done right it’s a safe bet that you’re onto a damn good thing. That’s exactly what we get with Judas and the Black Messiah, without quite reaching the spectacular.
Receiving high praise at the recent Sundance Festival, it was singled out for its acting, direction and timely themes. Quite right, too, although you can’t help wondering if the latter held it back just a little.
But more of that later. Set in late-60s Chicago, here we have the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), Chairman of the Black Panther Party, and fellow comrade William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who led a double-life as an FBI informant.
Kaluuya received a Golden Globe best supporting nod, and it’s easy to see why. Playing Hampton with the firebrand energy that was a trademark of such figureheads, his performance comes into its own again and again, just when you thought it couldn’t spark into life anymore. At times, it’s hard to believe that this is a British actor, once of Skins and Psychoville.
Stanfield has said that it was never his intention to play O’Neal as a villain, which is evident from the get-go. Although there isn’t the spirit and exuberance we get with Kaluuya’s portrayal, he does a great job at winning the audience over, despite the shady secret of his character. Director Shaka King steadily builds the tension, particularly with the spider’s web of deceit entangling O’Neal, so much so that our sympathies turn on a dime again and again. The political rallies are explosive, and would no doubt be even more enthralling at a cinema than they were at the virtual screening I was treated to.
Unlike with O’Neal, we really only see the one side of Hampton; a more three-dimensional perspective would have given us a better appreciation of the Panthers’ struggle. It deals with a very specific point in the party’s history, so perhaps there just wasn’t room for a more detailed study of Hampton. In conveying messages about today’s America – bold as it is – it does lose its way between past and present on occasion. However, it manages to paint an unsavoury picture of the FBI, who were led at the time by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).
Is it a worthy successor to great movies of the movement such as Malcolm X, A Huey P. Newton Story and Night Catches Us? Only time will tell, but it’s easily strong enough to stand on its own two feet and not suffer by comparison. Despite the mild criticism, it’s still refreshing when a film or TV series identifies with issues that are pertinent to the present – especially when there’s a pumping soul-funk soundtrack to back it up.
Judas and the Black Messiah goes on release in U.S. theatres today, and also digitally on HBO Max for one month only. It’s not quite a classic, but there’s more than enough fireworks and raw emotion to sustain the tension and thrills.
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