With Judas and the Black Messiah, writer/director Shaka King takes on the difficult project of making a movie about a man who would balk at his own protagonism. Telling the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter in the late ‘60s, as a more typical biopic would betray his commitment to the collective, while truly (re)distributing the film’s focus would deemphasize the life this film wants to celebrate. King’s solution is to make Judas a two-hander, positioning both Hampton and the FBI-informing Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) as leads, with Hampton’s fiancée Deborah (Dominique Fishback) and O’Neal’s FBI handler Roy (Jesse Plemons) playing strong supporting roles in their respective lives. His approach largely succeeds, backed as it is by quality filmmaking and a firm grip on its politics, but the degree of audience engagement comes down to how each viewer responds to the strengths and limitations of this structure.
The most obvious strength, creating space for two terrific lead performances, is also its greatest. Often quieter than the film’s trailers suggest, Kaluuya plays Hampton as a man with his own gravity, gently and intelligently pulling people into his orbit. His solid physical presence reflects a thoughtful, introspective personality while communicating an absolute conviction to his revolutionary cause. Stanfield’s Bill, a car thief who agrees to infiltrate the Panthers to avoid jailtime, is instead twitchy and performative. He is more a traitor by circumstance than anything else, and this manifests in Stanfield’s mannerisms as a perpetual state of uncertainty. While he plays committed Panther one moment and committed informant the next, Bill appears to still be deciding what to do as he does it, as if he can’t even be certain of his commitment to his own self-interest.
King also takes thematic advantage of his dual leads by using their contrasting performances, along with those of Fishback and Plemons, to question what it means to have convictions. Bill, Deborah, and Roy all face moments that make us question whether they are acting out of principle or social expectation, the camera zeroed in on their faces as they struggle with this distinction themselves. Hampton, unwavering in his idealism, does not, and neither does FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (a notably grotesque Martin Sheen), who wears his racial paranoia on his sleeve. Judas and the Black Messiah is invested in exploring how most people fall in line with their surroundings, swayed by the power that comes with political conviction, and celebrating Fred Hampton for wielding that power on the people’s behalf.
While King’s film delivers for viewers that crave the chance to see talented actors interpret nuanced material, part of me couldn’t help but dwell on the storytelling roads not taken. Others have questioned the decision to give so much space to Bill when telling Hampton’s story, but I understand the urge – placing him alone at the center would likely make Judas a more typical biopic, which no critic wants to see more of. But the scenes with the most spark suggest two different, potentially more engaging approaches: first, leaning firmly into Bill as the protagonist, emphasizing his internal struggle and the dual influences of Hampton and Roy; second, placing Deborah at the narrative center, focusing on her relationship with Hampton and her conflicting roles as revolutionary and expecting mother. King tries to have it all here, but he could have accomplished more by narrowing down, and that what if? softens the impact of an otherwise strong movie.
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