Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). Film review of the FBI/Black Panther movie starring Daniel Kaluuya

Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah
Standard

Drama

star rating 3 out of 5 worth watching

Film review by Jason Day of Judas and the Black Messiah, the drama about a black man who poses as a cop to steal other people’s cars who turns informant on a Chicago Black Panther cell. Starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield.

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Synopsis

Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a black con artist who likes nothing more than pretending to a police officer so he can steal other people’s cars.

One day he is sprung and the FBI offer him a deal: to infiltrate a Black Panther Party cell in Chicago and turn informant in return for substantial monetary rewards. As Party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) rises in people’s estimations and talk of revolution hangs heavy in the air, O’Neal finds himself conflicted.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

Even though we are now just over a year into the pandemic, Video on Demand (VOD) for new movies that aren’t available to see in cinemas, are waters I’m only just dipping my toes into. And very expensive waters they are proving to be.

Although I stream movies and TV from subscription services, my first outright VOD purchase was this weekend, Judas and the Black Messiah, which is up for a clutch of Oscars later in April.

Being used to paying a flat rate per month for platforms such as Netflix or my old stomping ground, Cineworld with its gloriously good value for money Unlimited Card (20 quid), I naturally expected a relatively cheap rental price on Google Play.

Not so. The actual asking price? £15.99 (it’s also the same amount on Amazon Prime).

Without meaning to sound too much like a tight arse, but: “‘OW MUCH?!”

Seriously though, given how many of the Best Picture nominees are only available to see as VOD, that’s a few extra pennies I didn’t see haemorraging from my bank account.

Now, tight arsed-ness ranting aside, on to what I thought of the movie.

There’s no doubting the high quality of the acting in this movie. Director Shaka King milks every ounce of powerhouse performance possibility in the sometimes explosive speeches and dynamic conversations, when the writing allows.

And you can see how readily the cast grasp the opportunity to fall in line.

It is a very male-heavy movie, but the leading turns from Kaluuya and Stanfield are awesome and for very different reasons.

Kaluuya has the showier role as the political agitator, the firebrand, the showman. He’s a force of nature, a tornado full of annoyance, anger and personal drive. Just like a tornado, he wants to rip through the fabric of (an unequal) society and upend everything, ready the shoots of a new world order to grow.

Stansfield has the relatively quieter role as the slimy and opportunistic O’Neal, a man who in real life actually did pretend to be a cop so he could nick cars he liked from their unsuspecting owners. It’s more understated and subtle so, in a sense, difficult to play.

Both are nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the impending Oscars (bizarrely, neither are up for Best Actor, despite each having key, prominent roles in the narrative) a situation that gives Academy voters a bit of a quandary. Historically, it’s a nominee from another film who can waltz away with the prize. If I were to award it to either of them I’d go for Kaluuya, but Stansfield would be my very close, second choice.

Playwright and actress Dominque Fishback, as Kaluuya’s loyal love interest, squeezes what she can out of a sidelined role and is nominated for a supporting BAFTA award. As I said, this is a man’s film; the other female characters are mere blink and you’ll miss them walk-ons.

So, why the three star rating? I’ve written before about needing to manage my expectations with movies, especially when I’ve viewed snippets of marketing material about them, for anything to avoid whining about subsequently having my hopes dashed.

But it’s fair to say that, incendiary acting aside, the movie as a whole just didn’t catch fire. Perhaps I was too comfortable watching it while laying down on my sofa (and angered about that mammoth rental fee!) but more than once found myself wishing for the end (its, not my actual).

You might think that with my next point I am trying to compare apples and oranges, but Spike Lee’s similar-in-some-respects BlackKklansman (2019) had exactly the opposite effect. It’s still about a guy going undercover to blow an organisation wide apart to lead to a major social change, but Lee kept my interest squarely on an involving, stylish and even funny story.

I wasn’t gripped in the same way and felt, away from the political filibusters, the movie lost its way. I feel annoyed by this as I was expecting, indeed looking forward to, so much more. It relied too much on the leads; when they quieten down, the film sags.

Still, the points Judas and the Black Messiah makes do have relevancy if, rather disappointingly, mark how far we still need to go to achieve true and long-lasting racial equality.

If the #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter movements have shown us anything, it’s that group action can lead to something approaching change or, at the least huge visibility for huge issues. It’s just such a shame that in 2021, half a century after the events depicted in the film, those movements are even needed.

Cast & credits

Director: Shaka King. 2hr 6 min/126 min. BRON/MACRO/Participant/Proximity. (15).

Producers: Charles D. King, Ryan Coogler, Shaka King,
Writers: Will Berson, Shaka King.
Camera: Sean Bobbitt.
Music: Craig Harris, Mark Isham.
Sets: Sam Lisenco.

Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jeese Plemons, Dominque Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff.

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