I must admit the title ‘Judas and The Black Messiah’ (2021) is a clickbaity title to invite the audience into watching the film. It’s a great clickbait however, drawing the allegory of how Judas betray The Messiah for his own good. In this case, the “messiah” is black and a man that well-deserved its title: Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). The “Judas” is a 17-year-old petty criminal William “Bill” O’neal (Lakeith Stanfield) who got arrested after an attempt to steal a car using a federal officer’s identity. He is then offered to be an informant by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell in exchange for his charges being dropped. Thus, began the journey of Judas on betraying its Black Messiah to the Sanhedrin (FBI).
If you’re one of the readers who had watched Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Trial of The Chicago 7’ (2020), there would be no surprise on how the story would end. I am one of those people so the payoff engagement would come from Bill’s betrayal journey. Taking the perspective of a “rat”, it’s an overall tense film from beginning to the end, although the potential of being “one of the greatest thrillers of all time” are sacrificed for its character development, and that’s good enough for me.
Daniel Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton here, and he’s truly a beast that gives charisma to his followers. Even if I’m divided between the screen of two-dimensional medium and three-dimensional reality, the line “I am a revolutionary!” was at the tip of my mouth. Nevertheless, I still have my manners but I know the person between me was holding themselves to shout. Imagine if the whole theater shouted, that would be an amazing experience that matched the level of hype in ‘Avengers: Endgame’ and Kaluuya had proven himself to be one of the greatest actors of his generation.
It doesn’t mean that Lakeith Stanfield doesn’t deserve appreciation. He might be less of a scene grabber and prefer to play in the dark, but that’s how he nailed his role. Inside, we do know that he’s psychological state is crumbling mentally and we can’t help but to sympathize with him. And when it comes to the climax, there’s just an unexplainable emotion where we can’t wonder what we would do in his position.
But as I said before, the film just fails to grasp the potential it could be. The cinematography is dazzling, the soundtracks are drugs, combining ambience into the beats, the directions are top-notch. So what goes wrong? Even with its timely theme when #blacklivesmatter, my emotions were half suppressed to release my rage. It’s not because I don’t sympathize with them, but rather because of its delivery that focuses more on the character’s tension rather than the social context itself.
I can’t blame how Shaka King directs the story however. From the beginning we’re promised that this will be the personal story of how “Judas” betrays the “Black Messiah” himself. The promises are fulfilled with an addition of powerful direction and powerful performance. There’s no denying that.