For any film, a successful run up to the Oscar nominations largely consists of two things: timing and the quality of the campaign. A film that comes out a little too early runs the risk of peaking too soon and fizzling out. On the other hand, a film that comes out too late can arrive at a time when the field feels already set. Obviously, a good campaign can mitigate either of those challenges. But I’m willing to bet, if you ask a publicist if they’d prefer a film come out a little too early vs. a little too late they’d pick the former every time. Why? Because more time = more time. It’s easier to remind people why they liked a movie so much in the first place than it is to gain traction late in the Oscar season.
Which brings me to Judas and the Black Messiah—a film that I fear will suffer a lack of Academy recognition due to its February 12, 2021 release date. That would sure as hell be a shameful fate, because director Shaka King’s telling of the rise to prominence and eventual assassination of the Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton is a truly electrifying experience.
Judas is a biopic that doesn’t play like a history lesson (although it certainly serves that purpose). It’s too muscular and immediate to get caught up in the stuffy tropes of so many “true-life” films that want to remind you of their importance. Instead, what King has done here is make what amounts to a Sidney Lumet film with a little more brio—Lumet on steroids, if you will. While it may have nothing more than tenuous comparable thematic elements (police corruption, a righteous rebel under tremendous pressure) to Lumet’s classic ’70s NYC film, Serpico, there is a real physical connection between the two films. You can practically smell and feel the streets of Chicago in Judas much the same as you do the concrete and pavement of New York City in Serpico. That’s not to say that I think King (who remarkably has only one other film to his credit, 2013’s little-seen stoner film, Newlyweeds) is stealing or even borrowing from Lumet (I have no idea), it’s more that his film is a kind of spiritual descendent.
King’s film, however, is a statement of its own. One would expect most filmmakers to make the picture largely about Hampton (the titular Messiah in the title), but King focuses his film primarily on the Judas of the story, played so remarkably by the great Lakeith Stanfield. This was a risky endeavor, because Stanfield is playing, by far, the less commanding character. As Bill O’Neill, the infiltrator of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, Stanfield has to keep his emotions just under the surface. Forced by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to sidle up to Hampton and bring back information to agent Roy Mitchell (the always terrific Jesse Plemons), O’Neill is a man caught in a terrible trap: If he doesn’t deliver the goods on Hampton, he will surely go to jail (for impersonating a federal officer among other things). But to do so means turning on his own people—a price that one day becomes the ultimate. What makes Stanfield’s performance so heartbreaking is that he isn’t playing O’Neill as some rootless turncoat. Without ever saying so, you can see just by his expressions that not only does he admire Hampton, but he might just believe in his cause, too. The way Stanfield maneuvers through this devil’s bargain is at times excruciating to watch. You would swear that O’Neill would prefer to simply disappear than continue to betray Hampton. Stanfield’s work here is so good that the lack of discussion around his own Oscar chances is all but criminal.
To be fair, it couldn’t have been easy for Stanfield to underplay his role across from the impossibly charismatic turn Daniel Kaluuya delivers as the doomed Hampton, but that choice was the perfect one for Stanfield to make. While Hampton is driven and bold, O’Neill is fearful and desperate. Should O’Neill fail the FBI, or make a mistake that allows the Panther organization (that has made him head of security) to uncover him, he will meet an awful end. At the same time, it is nearly impossible for O’Neill not to become connected to the cause through Hampton’s soaring rhetoric. Hell, I don’t know how anyone can watch Kaluuya deliver the words “I am…a Revolutionary!” without wanting to follow him into the mouth of a lion.
That line, delivered with a perfect pregnant pause, is nothing less than scintillating. It’s starting to look like a foregone conclusion that Kaluuya will score his first Oscar nomination since Get Out, this time in the Supporting Actor category. To my mind, this time he should win the statue. It’s not easy playing a character who is almost saintly (he’s not the film’s Messiah for nothing) and yet ground him as a real human being—but that’s just what Kaluuya does. His humanity is palpable in the handful of wonderful scenes he shares with Dominique Fishback as his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson. The two are so charming and tender together that if you go into the film knowing how Hampton’s life ended (as I did), you still find yourself hoping against hope that the story will end any other way.
But of course, it doesn’t. Judas and the Black Messiah is a story about two men who know the walls are closing in on them. One of those men chooses to put himself first. The other chooses his people. Anyone watching this film would like to believe that they would have gone Hampton’s route. But I think the hard truth is that most of us would more likely follow the path of O’Neill. Self-preservation is a strong motivator, and the sort of courage Hampton seemed cloaked in is in very short supply. The sad fact for O’Neill is that despite betraying his race for his freedom, he is never truly free. For both of these men—check that—for both of these black men, there is no road home…
And that is exactly what makes this film so much more than a historical document. In the year of its release, 2021, Judas and the Black Messiah feels like current events. Because who has not looked at their television in the last year and thought to themselves, has anything changed significantly for people of color?
Let me be clear, though. Judas and the Black Messiah is not just a movie you should see to take your medicine. It is far too involving and persuasive to be a film that’s simply good for you. By all means, if that’s all it were, I would probably still recommend it. But that’s not why I think you should see the film, nor is it why I think it deserves to be nominated for best picture. It deserves your attention and the selection by the Academy for the simplest reason of all:
It is the best film of the year.