Not Worth the Silver: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

(Warner Bros.)

“Some groups might be more revolutionary than others. We should not use the actions of a few to say that they are all reactionary or counter-revolutionary, because they are not.”
– Huey P. Newton, promoting intersectionality between the Black Panthers and other activists (15 August 1970)

*NOTE: I saw Judas and the Black Messiah during an advanced screening on Wednesday – 10th February 2021.

Does anyone besides me remember the movie Panther? It had so much promise: directed by Mario van Peebles from a script by Melvin van Peebles (based on his then-upcoming book) telling the story of the Black Panther Party for the first time on a mainstream cinematic canvas. To say the final result was a letdown would be the mother of all understatements.

It’s not just the fact that it reduced the entire lifespan of the Party to two years (which were absurdly condensed for the film’s narrative), there’s also the fact that it had no idea what kind of film it wanted to be – an enlightening docudrama like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (directly referenced by Panther’s use of the former’s Betty Shabazz actress, Angela Bassett) or an action movie? It failed at both.

Judas and the Black Messiah makes all the exact same mistakes. To its credit, it does a (mostly) better job with the docudrama, but it still comes up short and has no business trying to be an action movie. I’ve seen much, much worse, but this story deserved soooo much better.

Petty thief Bill (Lakeith Stanfield) makes a deal with the devil (Jesse Pimmons). (Warner Bros.)

The world really needs this story right now. On the same day that NBA followed up its 2020 “season of wokeness) with the announcement that anyone not revering the national anthem will be penalized, a contemporary dramatization of Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers is right in line with how the world is evolving – racist US Capitol insurrectionists notwithstanding. Hell, if you’re on this website then you’ve most likely read about my family’s direct connection to both racial profiling and the events depicted in this film. I was genuinely looking forward to this film.

That’s why it’s so goddamn disappointing: it squanders a grand opportunity to tell this story. The van Peebleses made the mistake of trying to squeeze a multi-volume story into a 90-some-odd minute package. (The documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution would do much better.) Director/co-writer Shaka King wisely narrows his focus, which should give him more opportunity to give his characters dimension, but he fails at that by stripping every character of their humanity and dimension.

None of these people are characters, they’re archetypes. Even the Black Panther party itself is reduced a series of slogans and a bunch leather jackets and berets. Sure, their free food programs get a good mention, but no Panther outside of Hampton (played by a not-quite-right-for-the-role Daniel Kaluuya) is presented as anything other than a scowling paranoic with an itchy trigger-finger. Jesse Pimmons’ FBI heavy ignorantly refers to the Panthers as “no different than the Klan”, and it often seems as if the film-makers want to prove him right. (Incidentally, the morning I saw the film was when this sticker/pin set arrived in the mail.)

Aside from Lakeith Stanfield as real-life stick-up-kid-turned-FBI-mole Bill O’Neal, none of the other actors truly find their characters. Martin Sheen was clearly directed to play J. Edgar Hoover as Lex Luthor-ish as possible (as proven by the opening scene in which Hoover pontificates on stage as if he were a Bond villain) and those of us who watched The Deuce knew Dominique Fishback was never the strongest actor, so her stone-faced performance as the future Akua Njeri is disappointing, but not surprising.

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, above) speaks before a crowd that includes the man (Lakeith Stanfield, below) who will betray him. (Warner Bros.)

And that’s another problem: a docudrama, as its name implies, is supposed to inform as much as it dramatizes. This film expects the audience to somehow already who everyone is before they even appear on screen. I didn’t know Fishback’s character was named “Deborah” (Njeri was born Deborah Johnson) or that Stanfield character was named “Bill” until they’re casually mentioned nearly halfway through the film. Hell, there are major characters in the film whose names I still don’t know. I’m all for cutting down on exposition, but this film acts as if the characters’ names are a private joke the audience isn’t in on.

Then there are some rudimentary film-making mistakes, like cutting because one thinks they have to rather than they should. To once again paraphrase my all-time favorite review, simply deciding to cover an important topic doesn’t mean you’ve covered it well.

If there’s anything I hate in art, it’s wasted potential. This film begins as the story of a Black thief who uses a fake FBI badge to rob other Black folks because “a badge is scarier than a gun”. The thief is then given a genuine FBI affiliation for the sake of subverting the work of a Black organization that wants nothing more than to empower other Black people. That description alone is rich with possibilities and I hope to one day see it done justice.

This is not that day and this is not that film. A few stylistic choices keep it afloat and Lakeith Stanfield’s performance isn’t bad, but Judas and the Black Messiah is not an example of putting one’s best creative foot forward. And if you can’t do that with this material, you should even bother.

GRADE:                                             C-

Categories: Film

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