Director: Shaka King
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen
Run Time: 126 mins
Every Awards season, there is one undeserving film and this year, that honour goes to Judas And The Black Messiah. Directed by Shaka King, the film chronicles the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and his rise in the Illinois Black Panther chapter, culminating in his eventual betrayal by William O’Neale (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant. The film is largely told from the perspective of O’Neale, who we meet at the beginning of the film as he raids a bar with a fake FBI licence and steals a car, only to then get arrested and inform for them by infiltrating the Black Panther party. Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the heavy hitters this Awards season and it has a star studded cast so why doesn’t the film work?
The storytelling isn’t particularly coherent and King fails to capitalise on key moments. Plot points are glossed over throughout the film with no depth or meaningful character development. Most irritating is King’s glossing over of O’Neale’s betrayal at the end of the film and the results are emotionless, without consequence. The plot feels like a tick-box exercise.
Much praise has been touted regarding Daniel Kaluuya’s performance, who looks almost certain to win, as the Black Panther leader. Kaluuya is good but the way the character is written is one-note and this is far from his career best performance. It’s a shame that certain actors get rewarded for work that isn’t their best. If anything, Lakeith Stanfield gives the better performance of the two as his character has more gravitas but not nearly enough emotional development to empathise with the sticky situation O’Neale finds himself intertwined in.
The biggest mistake this film commits is it has an obnoxiously preachy tone, although luckily not to the extent of Selma, another Awards film that had received unanimous praise but I found it abhorrent.
The film’s not without a handful of merits. There are some energetic moments here and there where it feels like the film is going to take off but then it never happens and these attempts are ultimately inert. The opening with O’Neale raiding a bar is well done, as is a pulse-raising shootout on a busy street against the police. The score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris is interesting at times and there is a good performance in a standout scene from Lil Rey Howery, a mirroring of an earlier scene.
It’s a shame that with a cast and crew this good that the result is this inert. Whilst it has a couple of bright spots, for the most part, Judas And The Black Messiah is a slog of a biopic and a real disappointment.