Judas and the Black Messiah may be the latest in a long line of historical biopics, but it sets itself apart in ways that make for an entertaining, and provocative experience.
The biopic is one of the most revered and long-running film genres, not to mention one of the most award-winning in film history. Biopics give us an inside glimpse into the life of a person of interest, and the interest comes from seeing how that person lived and what motivated them to do what they do. The draw of these type of films also seems to be because we get to see actors completely transform themselves to become these people of interest. It can often be one of the most transformative, and difficult roles an actor can portray.
Judas and the Black Messiah is the next great successor to the biopic throne. This is a film which checks off all of the boxes of your traditional biopic, and yet it also transcends the genre in several important ways. Namely, this is a biopic that doesn’t feel like a biopic. Judas and the Black Messiah tells its story like a crime thriller, pushing its audience to the edge of their seats as they are taken over by a rollercoaster plot full of suspense and excitement. And yet, the film doesn’t relinquish the traditions of the genre – it still centers around transformative performances and doesn’t cast aside historical accuracy for cinematic thrills.
Directed By: Shaka King
Written By: Shaka King, Will Berson
Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons
Release Date: February 12, 2021
The film owes its excitement to the way that it is constructed. The plot follows the exploitation of Bill O’Neal by the FBI. O’Neal is captured by the FBI after attempting to steal a car by impersonating an officer, and in exchange for not having to go to prison he agrees to become an undercover informant and infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. There, he meets enigmatic leader Fred Hampton who is working to unite various groups in the area so that they can fight together for equality. As he gets closer to Hampton, O’Neal earns his trust and the FBI push him to perform riskier and riskier acts of espionage.
The plot is actually broken into two threads, one following Hampton and one following O’Neal. As a result, the film has not one transformative central performance, but two. This helps to give the film a more dynamic feel, as we are not just stuck watching one person’s life unfurl, but two. With two storylines to follow in a feature length film this does mean that each is not as in-depth as we might expect from a biopic, but the trade-off is the fact that the filmmakers get to pick and choose the events to depict which will best accent the film’s tone and motivation. In other words, they can leave out details which are not essential to the connection between these two characters.
Generally in the world of biopics, picking and choosing events from a persons’ life to depict on film would mean taking short cuts. While that is essentially the case with Judas and the Black Messiah the plot doesn’t feel rushed or lacking in detail. Part of the reason for this is that the film is not really all that focused on showing how O’Neal or Hampton got to the point they are in their lives as depicted in the film. We know very little about their past or what had caused them down the paths they are on before they cross. Instead, all we need to know about who Hampton and O’Neal are is determined from their actions, and the film has a few tricks up its sleeve to pull this off.
First, it starts O’Neal’s story with an interview of him taken decades after the events pictured in the film. This interview is actually a re-creation of a real life interview, and part of that real-life interview is depicted at the end to help tie-in the film’s aspirations with being realistic as possible. This interview is utilized in several flash-forwards where O’Neal is discussing the events of his past, and those discussions add context such as his concerns and thoughts which are not exactly able to be conveyed when the film is depicting those events in real time. The film also has scenes where O’Neal is meeting with his FBI handler, and those scenes also help to add context and emotional weight to the events as O’Neal expresses his fears and ideas. Similarly, Hampton’s thoughts and concerns are voiced in intimate scenes when he is with his girlfriend.
These scenes where O’Neal and Hampton are apart are what provides the film’s depth. The scenes when O’Neal and Hampton are together, or at least when O’Neal is acting undercover, are the scenes which drive the plot forward. Together they create an entertaining and emotional film without only relying on one element or the other, as we have seen in countless biopics in the past.
These little glimpses into the lives of the characters also highlights their vulnerabilities and insecurities. Too often do we see biopics put their subjects onto a pedestal and ignore the fact that they are human despite their impressive accomplishments. I also appreciated the film’s sincerity. As the characters discuss their fears and concerns, they also contemplate and discuss the implications of their actions and decisions. Hampton is fighting for racial equality, and O’Neal is motivated to save himself. But as he becomes more and more involved he comes to regret his decision, and likewise Hampton comes to realize the impossible odds he is fighting against.
The film carries a strong message about fighting for what you believe in. There is a powerful scene where Hampton is addressing a crowd on his return from a prison sentence with an emotional speech. O’Neal shouts along with him as his FBI handler watches from the crowd with a smirk on his face. The handler later questions O’Neal’s motivation as his behavior at the rally seems to convey a commitment to Hampton rather than the FBI. This observation is an accurate one, and defines the predicament O’Neal finds himself in. He has to make a terrible decision between his life or what he comes to believe in. Without a plan, O’Neal continues with his work as an informant essentially hoping that it will work out in the end.
The film contrasts O’Neal’s predicament with Hampton’s. Hampton is a high-profile figure as a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, and as such is enemy number one to the white establishment – the city government and its police force. Like O’Neal he faces a no-win scenario, but unlike O’Neal isn’t fooling himself about his chances to save his own life. He fully realizes the risks he is taking to try and make a difference, and the powers of those who are trying to stop him. The heart of the film is how these two people carry on in this type of a situation.
It is also true that the film is using this story to paint a bigger picture of racial inequality. Although Hampton has to work with gangs or resort to violence, those are the realities of his predicament and the necessities he has to embrace in order to make a difference in his community. I don’t necessarily think the film is trying to justify that type of behavior, but simply illustrate the futility of the situation. Likewise, O’Neal is being unjustly and unfairly used as a blunt instrument by the United States government to further the oppression of the African American community.
Certainly the film’s plot and its perspective may be controversial in some circles, but those are the same circles who probably won’t watch it in the first place. Like most historical dramas, the purpose of the film is to bring awareness to an event in history by adding more context, but it is also using that event as a jumping off point for a discussion about racial injustice. Overall the film does a good job of speaking up without feeling like it is exploiting an event in the past for either cinematic enjoyment or an opportunity to push an agenda.
My only real criticism of the film is on a technical side. The characters in the film are meant to be very young, in their early 20’s or younger. I’m a big fan of both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, but they both seem too old for their roles. Granted, they both do a tremendous job, and perhaps the fact that they are older and more experienced actors allows those performances to reach the level they needed to be. Kaluuya’s accent doesn’t hold up completely, but it doesn’t take away from his powerhouse performance.
In all other aspects, the Judas and the Black Messiah is a rousing success. Director Shaka King successfully navigates the perilous waters of the boisterous biopic to give us a film that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Above all, this is a very powerful film. From the performances, to the story, to the production, to the messages – it speaks loud and clear. Not only does it tie into current events, but it brings to life history in a vibrant and interesting way. Judas and the Black Messiah may be guided by the steadfast traditions of the archaic biopic lineage, but it is a perfect film for the here and now.