As the date for Oscar nominations approaches (March 15, 2021), Judas and the Black Messiah (Judas) is a short-list contender for Best Picture. On trend with the several other films centering around 1960s activism and controversies, “Judas” takes on the story of prominent Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton and the FBI informant who lead to his death.
The Conservative Critic will be answering the questions of the film: “Is it entertaining?” “Does it have intellectual/artistic value?” and “Is it liberal propaganda?”
This review does contain spoilers which Im not sure is a necessary disclaimer considering its based on a true story.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Overall Rating: Fine
Rating this film is extremely difficult as it is made for a very specific audience, who is definitely not me. Putting aside the fact that the film was not made for me, overall its strongest asset was its actors and its weakest drag was its one-sided extremely loaded point-of-view.
Following the most high profile time in the life of Fred Hampton, the deputy Chairman of the Black Panther Party, the film plays out a bit like a western full of shootouts and not-so-subtle alterations of the truth. Much like the cowboys of spaghetti westerns, the film is a homage to a group and a person which existed in a quite less black and white reality than the one on the screen.
One way to tackle a film like this is to decipher the point-of-view of the film and give a rating while subscribing to that point-of-view in order to simplify the complexity of finding its value. In this instance, I cannot in good conscience rate the film’s celebration of an extremely violent revolutionary group and its leader as anything less than liberal propaganda even though there is a lot of merit to discussing their parallels to groups which liberals revile.
The major success of the film is its truly impressive acting performances and its genuinely untold subject matter which gives an old issue new light.
Is it entertaining?
Putting aside the subject matter, the film is an easy watch loaded with tense close calls as FBI informant, William O’Neal played by LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You, Knives Out) tries to meet the expectations of the his FBI contact having infiltrated the notoriously unforgiving Black Panthers of Chicago and finding his own soul observing the conflict between law enforcement and the group on which he is meant to spy.
All the while the film takes us on a journey inside one of the most controversial organizations in the history of the U.S. as they recruit with one of their most convincing and unrelenting leaders. Between the gun fights, the murder plots, the love stories and the scarecely highlighted subject matter there is nothing boring about “Judas” and it would have been rated “fully entertaining” if not for the extreme violence which may create more tension than is bearable for the average viewer.
Does it have intellectual/artistic value?
Rating: High Quality
Written and directed by Shaka King, the film is a breakout success featuring foundationally solid writing particularly in dialog and is a true casting masterclass.
The performance given by Daniel Kuulya (ironically best known for his role in Marvel’s Black Panther which is not about the Black Panthers) as Fred Hampton is one of the best I’ve seen all year if not the best I’ve seen all year. He manages to totally humanize a character who in the course of the film espouses segregationist values, threats of murder, and open calls to violence. Through the film’s depiction of his sweet and quiet love affair with Deborah Johnson played by Dominque Fishbeck (The Hate You Give, Project Power) and his friendship with the members of his party, Kuulya gives us a Hampton we can almost root for and that some viewers I’m sure were totally able to root for. Somehow depicted as both victim and revolutionary in his own words and mind, Kuulya’s Hampton is a contradiction that I could not get enough of watching. Kuulya is absolutely deserving of a Best Actor nomination if not the win this cycle (though to be fair, I am not through viewing all the contenders).
None of this is to say I endorse the values the character preached, it’s important in reviewing work critically to be able to separate the performance from the flaws of the material which is why at the Conservative Critic we tackle the propaganda in its own critical segment. So don’t worry – I’m getting to it.
Stanfield’s O’Neal is absolutely believable. I find Stanfield himself to have fairly distinctive features and mannerisms which make it difficult for him to ever truly take on a character. In everything he does there is always a sense that I am watching Stanfield do a character and I can never quite suspend my disbelief. This was not different. However, many lauded actors have a signature style of performance which they use as a marker and Stanfield is part of a well celebrated group including Julia Roberts, Renee Zelweger, Will Smith and Adrian Brody. I was not as impressed by his O’Neal as I was impressed by Kuulya but the bar was incredibly high. His performance was still strong and may likely land him a nomination.
The unsung hero of the film is Fishbeck’s Johnson. Written beautifully as the innocent poetess, Fishbeck plays Johnson with a clean, angelic baby face and gorgeous natural hair cropped in the fashion of the Panthers in the 1960s. Without her character, Kuulya has no ability to humanize Fred Hampton and she is the center point on which so many of the film’s material flaws are made excusable. With all the vulnerability of a child but the conviction of a woman, Fishbeck brings life into a real woman (still alive today) who really fell in love in the midst of a violent revolt. She plays the heart of the Panthers and she does it flawlessly.
Unweighted with clunky monologues or over dramatic speeches – Johnson is a better written character than a lot of female characters I’ve seen in a long time and certainly better than the performances – heavy with the syrup of righteousness – that have been recently awarded (such as last years’ Golden Globe winner, Laura Dern and her intolerably cheesy divorce lawyer in Marriage Story). And yet Fishbeck has not received a nomination for her performance and in fact at the Golden Globes there was not a single minority nominated in her category. The Oscars and the other awards are under no obligation to participate in affirmative action but certainly Fishbecks standout performance which was at the very heart and soul of the film being hotly discussed as best picture material is deserving of more serious consideration.
Other than the outstanding acting, the film is also paced well. Coming in under two hours and spanning the course of about a year, the film manages to show us who Fred Hampton was (through the lens of Fred Hampton sympathizers) and why he was an effective leader of the Black Panther Party while giving us the gripping reality of the violence of the era particularly surrounding the party and how much was at stake for the young recruits.
Like a western, the film’s gunfight scenes were extremely well choreographed and gripping to behold. Using architecture to create drama and blind viewers from all sides of the fighting, each shootout was more of a nail biter than the rest. Recognizing that this was a true story, I say that with no amount of levity except to say that the action of the film was handled very well using one of Hollywood’s oldest formats in a new unrecognizable setting.
The film’s major artistic flaw comes from its one-sidedness. Where all the benefit of the doubt in the world is written in for the members of the Black Panther Party who are on initiating violence left and right, the unnamed police officers are depicted as nameless, brainless, racist bloodmongers whose only goal in life is to kill as many black people as possible. This is a common thread in award nominated films this year. While its likely that there were racist members of the Chicago PD in the 1960s and that some if not many of them had unjustified ill will toward black people generally speaking – it is probably a stretch that police were at-large and without provocation seeking to do harm to innocent people. Refusing to acknowledge the dangerous and violent practices of the Black Panther Party and the fear they intentionally instilled into neighborhoods they entered created a sort of comical villain in the local police where they could have been more honest and created a better dichotomy of values. These scenes brought down the overall quality of the film even if the viewer was a stalwart Panther supporter because the officers as characters were so cartoonish.
Is it liberal propaganda?
Rating: Off the charts liberal mind melt
The premise of the film is that Fred Hampton is a hero worthy of a biopic and from that premise only liberalism can flow.
Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party of the time were firm believers in segregation and political violence. Two values you’d think in the year 2021 would be uncontroversial condemned across all political parties and thinkers. However, “Judas” manages to endorse these values while directly arguing that they are somehow different from the segregation and political violence supported by groups such as the KKK and neo-nazis.
In an early scene of the film, Hampton and his group attend some kind of neo-nazi confederate meeting where actually the speaker is calling for a lot less than Hampton himself calls for in the many speeches given throughout the film. At this point I thought – how interesting is this film going to be self-aware enough to directly compare the Black Panthers to other racist groups?
But no instead Hampton gives a speech about how their racism is different than Panther racism.
Further, the Panthers regularly instigate violence while acting like victims and being portrayed like victims. Many times through the film the Panthers refer to themselves as revolutionaries and call their movement a revolution. They call specifically for killing police and overthrowing the government. They opened fire on police officers on multiple occasions. But at the end of the film at the violent climax when Hampton is killed by the FBI, they act like they were ambushed and greatly wrong by the criminal justice system. To this day they act as though they were wronged by the criminal justice system despite very openly claiming to be actively trying to overthrow the entire system.
The indictment which could have been levied at deep state considering the FBI’s role in setting up Fred Hampton amongst other party members not to mention its active participation in the escalation of the Panthers violence is never quite made. Instead of spending time evaluating the corruption at the heart of the FBI the film wastes time making regular police officers who are not part of a greater systemic conspiracy into clownish thugs. The casual blame the FBI takes for its incredibly irresponsible if not criminal behavior infiltrating the Black Panthers is conflated with beat cops to the point that an average viewer not accustomed to watching for liberal nonsense would probably tell you that “cops” killed Fred Hampton and not federal agents.
As the final scene concludes the film gives us the liberal favorite “facts” before the credits role and all of them are presented as absolutes even though they only represent one side of the federal case against Hampton. The Panthers present on the night Hampton is killed claim they one fired one bullet and the film tells us that is the truth. However, in federal court it is agreed by all parties that federal agents were injured in the raid. How were federal agents injured if there was no return fire?
Further, the Panthers claim and the film confirms that the agents fired recklessly and relentlessly giving no warning to the people inside with the clear intent of killing everyone. And yet, only Fred Hampton was killed in the raid. How did agents manage to even accidentally leave everyone alive except their target if they were firing so recklessly with 1960s weapons?
What is clear is that the raid was a federal sponsored hit on Fred Hampton which is not legal in the United States and the FBI should be accountable for their actions taken against a US citizen. However, this message is muddied with the unlikely details added to the scene.
It is interesting that liberals have been so concerned about the “seditious” acts of 400 primarily unarmed Capitol rioters looking – in their words – to overthrow the government and in that act killing a police officer but so eager to celebrate a man who quite specifically called for the exact same act and who organized far more deaths. At one point in the film a young Panther member dies after first physically harassing an elderly man then opening fire on the police who the elderly man called for help. This young man shoots an injured policeman begging for mercy in cold blood. The mother of this young man says “Its not fair” that this will be how he’s remembered because his life was made up of more things.
Interesting, I do not recall the same sentiment being expressed for those caught up in the Capitol riots who killed and injured far less people and with far less intention. And CERTAINLY I have not heard (nor should I want to hear) the same sentiment for any members of the KKK or other racist groups. In fact when some people got caught up with a white supremacist group in Charlottesville and President Trump tried to say that some of them got caught up on accident and white supremacy doesnt define who they are, he was called a racist and that quote was used over and over again to define HIM personally as a racist forever. No one called for people to look at his entire picture.
Finally, there is a lot of something to be said about the fact that federal agents and police were frequently targeting Panthers for their ownership of guns. Never does the film broach the fact that in America under the second Amendment they should be allowed to have as many guns as they’d like. With the purest of liberal blinders, the film neglects to point out that the only reason the FBI was able to raid Fred Hampton’s dwelling that night was a report that it was full of guns. If the FBI spent less time worried about Americans ownership of weapons and more time worried about the infiltration of organized crime from foreign influences then maybe Fred Hampton would be alive today or at least alive longer than he was. Perhaps the liberals supporting the cause and motives of the Black Panthers should be more vocal of their support of legal gun ownership and gun rights in America.
Ultimately there is not much separating Fred Hampton from David Duke and there is no place in the U.S. for segregation, racial inequality or political violence. This film refuses to see the comparison and apologizes for unacceptable acts.