It’s a bummer when a film has an important historical story to tell but the finished product just isn’t very good. Such is the case with “Judas and the Black Messiah,” director Shaka King‘s take on the true story of charismatic Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the man who infiltrated the African-American organization in Illinois in the late 1960s. It’s an interesting account of true events about two very important figures in our nation’s history, and the racial justice issues are just as relevant today. But topical material doesn’t always result in an award-worthy (or entertaining) movie.
There are plenty of things to appreciate about the film’s execution, including King’s confident directorial style and the knockout lead performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield. Kaluuya has massive shoes to fill when portraying a real life man who was filled with so much insight and wisdom, and he fully embraces Hampton’s mannerisms and speech, creating a wholly realized vision (the actor himself becomes almost unrecognizable).
The script is the weakest link, which is rare when so many of the other elements combine to create a cohesive vision. King and Will Berson‘s co-authored screenplay is too complicated, resulting in a stagnant film that takes more than an hour to hit its stride. Everything is painfully slow until then, with Berson and King taking far too long to tell the story. You can feel the admiration here, but the reverence towards their characters is so high that it impedes them from driving the story forward.
There’s a horrifying scene that tells the end of Hampton’s life story, an awful and upsetting act of injustice at the hands of law enforcement. It’s just one of the things that makes “Judas and the Black Messiah” an important narrative for current times, when so many people of color are still fighting for equality. I just wish the storytelling had been tightened a bit.