A great performance in a middling film can typically have one of two effects. First and preferable is an elevation of the film, supplying it with a purpose it otherwise lacks. Second and less preferable is an overpowering of the film, emphasizing its otherwise middling nature. Either way, the great performer in question always seems adrift in a film that either doesn’t recognize their greatness or doesn’t know how to wield it. Judas and the Black Messiah is, thankfully, elevated by a great performance but, ultimately, it’s still a middling film.

Our Judas is Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), an opportunistic Chicago street criminal who turns FBI informant when his neat method of impersonating an FBI agent to steal cars backfires and draws the Bureau’s attention. Stanfield is good but not great; great is our Black Messiah, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the impassioned, charismatic, dyed-in-the-wool radical chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. He’s also the target of FBI ire, increasingly so as he grows in influence and popularity both locally and nationally. Thus he becomes O’Neal’s target as O’Neal infiltrates the Party and manages a chain of events that ― and this isn’t a spoiler, since the film is based on a true story ― will eventually lead to Hampton’s murder at 21 years of age.

Films tackling specific periods in modern Western political history aren’t exactly rare and, in this regard, Judas and the Black Messiah is most frustrating in just how common it seems content to be. Will Berson and Shaka King’s screenplay is a strictly straightforward recounting of historical events, somewhat clumsily condensed into standard biopic format. So, we cover the key details and key occurrences, become acquainted with the core political tenets of the Panthers’ ideologies and meet all the primary movers and shakers within this historical chapter.

As with too many biopics of revolutionary figures, the film simply observes and describes the their revolutionary nature, neither transmutating it into formal nor stylistic language tailored to the medium of film nor engaging with Hampton’s furious, righteous rhetorical passion. The audience is, instead, taken through the formulaic motions of a middlebrow political thriller, haphazardly cutting between Hampton’s public activities and private discussions, O’Neal’s dealings with Hampton and his fellow Panther members and O’Neal’s meetings with his FBI contact, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), himself assuming the position of occasional protagonist.

Only O’Neal is afforded much psychological insight and, even then, it’s rudimentary and sporadic. Hampton is indeed treated as something of a messiah ― appropriate to a point, given his extraordinary oratory gift, his political integrity, his magnetic, inspirational nature and his inevitable, untimely death. Yet this also keeps him at a remove from the audience, limiting the extent to which we can identify with him and his remarkable personal predicament. Hampton was fully aware of the likelihood of his impending demise and the prevalence of FBI moles within his Chicago chapter is made clear, yet he remains a steadfastly noble and powerful figure. No thought is given to the incredible courage and unwavering certainty that must have driven him to maintain a public presence, indeed such a bold, inflammatory presence, under such threatening circumstances.

What Judas and the Black Messiah needs is someone to elevate it above the ranks of run-of-the-mill biopics. What the film gets instead is Daniel Kaluuya, and he’s more than up to the task. The young British star, possessor of arguably the most expressive gaze and most hypnotic stare in all of contemporary cinema, blazes through this film just as Hampton blazed through the Chicagoan political landscape in the late 1960s. He’s a monumental force here, seeming to draw everything and everyone else in the frame or in the scene toward him, pulling the viewer’s interest ever toward him with a performance that feels totally authentic and totally inhabited. The physical, visual transformation isn’t elaborate but it is astonishing nonetheless, yet for so renowned a speaker as Hampton, the vocal transformation must match it. And that it certainly does ― Kaluuya not only nails the accent, cadence, pitch, pace and tone of Hampton’s voice, he even adorns it with intermittent hints of an African influence, though never so overtly as to draw undue attention toward them.

Kaluuya may be the most marvelous but the entire ensemble is strong, from the fabulously swaggering Ashton Sanders as Party member Jimmy Palmer to the brilliantly emotive Dominique Fishback as new member and Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson. These are rich roles filled by capable actors in a fascinating, tragic true story, yet King seems to rely too heavily on those inherent virtues. Judas and the Black Messiah provides a fine example of why a good story faithfully told does not necessarily make for great art. Acts of inspired creation are required to actually create something worthwhile and, here, most of that inspiration appears to source back to one man. Kaluuya may not be a real-life messiah but he’s undoubtedly this film’s savior.

A brilliant performance can’t obscure the fact that a good story faithfully told does not necessarily make for great art.
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One Comment

  1. Donna Kotila

    March 12, 2021 at 7:28 am

    For those of us who were aware of the Cointelpro crimes, publishing the truth has been a long time coming. Babylon shall be utterly destroyed through institutional corruption, gross incompetence and personal scandals. “Howl, ye hypocrites! Howl!”


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A fitting tribute to a true icon. Bittersweet and brilliant, a fine and genuine honour tha…