Judas and the Black Messiah Refreshed the Biopic

Movies, Reviews

Judas and the Black Messiah felt like cinema. Excluding a few gems that were always intended for the small screen, like Palm Springs, this past year of hybrid model movie releases has been fairly bleak. Wonder Woman 84, Mulan, and The Little Things were hardly reminders of why we need to rush back out to the cinemas. Tenet is the only film that has been released in the past year that was, obviously to its own detriment. All of that is to say, I believe audiences have unknowingly been hungry for a movie with the budget and production value of a cinematic release but without the drawbacks of home viewing hampering their experience.

Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, streaming now on HBO Max.

Here there be spoilers.

Political biopics say as much about the times they are made in as they do the times they chronicle, and Judas and the Black Messiah presents a fairly scathing indictment of our current times. The film is mostly focused around the life and choices of William O’Neal, portrayed brilliantly by LaKeith Stanfield. The story is a mirror of the ways in which the corrupt systems around us perpetuate themselves today. 

Screenshot from Judas and the Black Messiah; Lakeith Stanfield holding up a revolutionary fist while portraying Bill O'Neal at a Black Panther rally.

O’Neal is stuck in a loop where in order to keep his “freedom” he must help perpetuate a system that keeps him underfoot. His inciting incident, the consequences of impersonating a federal officer, is birthed from the same idea that upholds the status quo, that a badge is scarier than a gun. The reason the badge is scarier is because it is symbolic of power and that symbolism controls the way one thinks about themselves. Do they think of themselves as at its mercy? Do they think of themselves as representatives of its justice? Who is the arbiter of what that justice looks like?

The film presents us as we are on the spectrum of justice. The characters that serve as the endpoints of good and evil are Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton and Martin Sheen’s J. Edgar Hoover, but they are surprisingly less in focus than the characters surrounding them. O’Neal’s quest for personal survival and Agent Roy Mitchell’s (Jesse Plemons) belief that he is on the right side are what cause the tragedies of the story to unfold.

The film wants to drive home that ultimately what killed Fed Hampton in his sleep was not the individual racism of J. Edgar Hoover or his agents, but the intentional upholding of the system above the people within it by the main characters. Agent Mitchell believes he isn’t racist because he investigated the Klan and that the Black Panthers are “the other side of the same coin.” O’Neal has convinced himself that his act of self preservation is actually for the greater good. These are the small decisions and compromises many of us make that perpetuate injustice.

Beyond the central themes of the film, the casting is a knockout. LaKeith Stanfield, as per usual, steals the show. He might be one of the best working actors in this generation, and this might be his best performance yet. Jesse Plemons shines with the same ease he forces the viewer to hate him, and Dominique Fishback’s portrayal of Hampton’s partner, Deborah Johnson, is heartbreaking and beautiful. Her lament to Kaluuya’s Hampton that she wasn’t sure if she would be a good enough mother or revolutionary brought back memories of her iconic performances asd Darlene in HBO’s The Deuce.

As a final thought, the cinematography was both electric and well framed and the pacing was solid enough for a two hour feature. The only building block that was lacking was the score, as it was not entirely memorable at least to this viewer, but it certainly did not impact the film in a negative way.

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