Dir: Shaka King
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song.
Following the murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah takes us back to the tumultuous period of the late 60s when the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover (portrayed here in heavy makeup by Martin Sheen) became intensely paranoid that the root and branch reshaping of America’s cultural and political landscape would lead to yet another progressive leader rising through the ranks to be figurehead in the fight against injustice. The film focuses on this next potential “Black Messiah” in the form of the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther organisation Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and an FBI informant and potential ‘Judas’ in the shape of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a career thief who is cajoled by the authorities into infiltrating the Panthers and becoming Hampton’s right hand man in order to avoid a jail sentence.
Almost everything about Judas and The Black Messiah is excellent, especially its wonderful cinematography that is both vital and timeless in its feel. It wraps itself around this true life tale, a story of real substance which wrestles with hefty moral ideas that, despite their inherent complexity, don’t weigh the film down one iota. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance is a little over mannered for my liking and is sometimes a little too self indulgent in a cast of actors who largely avoid grandstanding in favour of faithfully serving the story in this otherwise exceptionally well-measured ensemble cast. In particular, LaKeith Stanfield is excellent as the informant whose loyalties are torn between the Panther’s vision of social justice and the pressure applied from his FBI handler who is brilliantly played by the very capable Jesse Plemons (expect big things from him in future). The film’s score and soundtrack are as exceptional as its photography, and the story is handled beautifully, never allowing the battle for O’Neal’s loyalty to the Panthers or the FBI to become the type of cliched affair often seen in informant/double agent portrayals. Nor does the film descend into a run-of-the-mill biopic style which is always the risk with such subjects.
The film pulls off the minor miracle of not just allowing you to see the powerful political points the movie intends to make in terms of social justice (points it doesn’t hit you over the head with by the way, it’s done authentically and cleverly) but it additionally lets you ruminate in the personal choices and moral dilemmas of its characters in this situation which poses questions that reach way beyond the film’s setting. It’s a movie about the roles our system forces us into and its consequences on both sides of any divide. Much of Judas & The Black Messiah’s brilliance is in its physical movements and spacial awareness that allows us to literally see and feel the place America was in at the late 60s, it inhabits that world thoroughly in every frame whilst still maintaining an urgent relevancy. Despite the words exchanged, we see that powerfully egalitarian ideas are often met by supremely ugly reactions in an oppressive system that is desperate to cling to its power. When the Panther’s in the film echo Che Guevara in saying ‘Words are beautiful, but actions are supreme’ it might as well be the central ethos of the story as well as the filmmakers credo. For whatever the characters’ inner desires are, it’s how they match that with the world around them that makes for an incredibly powerful film, especially in its fascinating coda that leaves us all to think about which side of history we should be on. A real world moral minefield brought to life by the supreme actions of a talented director to keep your eye on, the Academy’s oversight in not nominating King for best director is real blunder.
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