Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Immediately after its Sundance premiere, Judas and the Black Messiah attracted considerable attention from festival audiences and – most notably – from the critical community. Sonnets were written about Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield and even Jesse Plemons and at least for a little while it looked as though this Shaka King’s sophomore feature would generate enough momentum to stage an upset at the Oscars.  

Well, this near universal praise did not translate into an all-out success, at least as far as accolades were concerned. The film received two Oscars (Kaluuya for Best Actor and Best Song) and a handful of other awards, most of which came from various critic societies and festivals. More notably, however, despite the immense word-of-mouth buzz surrounding this movie, Judas and the Black Messiah disappeared from the conversation almost immediately after the red carpet was rolled back in and the post-Oscar hangover settled in. Granted, on some level this is partly due to the fact that Film Twitter darlings are most often discarded like used condoms the minute something new and fresh arrives at the gates and this is a story for a different day, but it also might illustrate the fundamental problem this film has, which would be highly unlikely to be picked up by critics writing reviews at the time of its release. I think noticing what I am about to remark upon requires the viewer to be a bit removed from the film in question, which is exactly where I am at myself.  

To put it succinctly, when I left the cinema (and my experience was also additionally elevated by the simple fact it was my first outing since the lockdown was lifted), I was quite positive on Judas and the Black Messiah. However, I wasn’t exactly eager to write about it either. And if I had been, I think my review would have been much stronger simply because of the film’s political messaging and the favourable timing of its release coinciding with Donald Trump getting the boot out of The White House, which wasn’t too far off cultural vindication. I guess what I am trying to articulate is that Shaka King’s film packs an immediate visceral punch. It affects the viewer with the strength of its story, which is quite simply stranger than fiction in places, and the political momentum, clearly bolstered by last year’s BLM protests. As the title suggests, it is at its very core an archetypal narrative that also happens to be rooted in historical fact. It’s tragic, immediate and thought-provoking thanks to how relatable it is to our current political climate worldwide, and how it also leverages a whole breadth of storytelling sub-archetypes we all find immediately familiar. After all, stories about powerful and potentially dangerous people being brought down by traitors conspiring to stop them from upsetting the status quo are abundant in literature, theatre and film. And this one is real.  

However, powerful as this punch is, it isn’t a knock-out blow. In fact, it is a jab that sends the viewer into a temporary daze which wears off quite quickly and leaves no lasting impact. It evaporates from the consciousness, which might explain why it was so easy for everyone to just move on. This isn’t Schindler’s List or In the Name of the Father which persisted in the zeitgeist for a longer while, but the written record simply does not reflect this sentiment. This is why I ultimately decided to sit down, revisit my own notes and ultimately pen this text because I feel that performances notwithstanding, Judas and the Black Messiah is weirdly mediocre. It’s… forgettable.  

Now, for the longest time I have contended that certain stories are best told by people who have a personal stake in the matter. There is a reason why Schindler’s List or The Pianist work the way they do and – at least on paper – Judas and the Black Messiah should benefit from this synergy as well. But I don’t think it does. It’s a well-executed biopic aimed at the same audience Green Book was, with a small exception of it having been made by people who have an immense personal attachment to the material. It’s not a revolting piece of filmmaking. It’s not heart-stopping. It’s not eye-opening. In fact, Judas and the Black Messiah is incredibly tame in its storytelling, it frequently eschews difficult imagery and falls back on narrative shorthand to keep the story running. Yes, it has its shining moments especially when Kaluuya is allowed to spread his wings, but overall, this story about one of the most morally challenging chapters in the recent US history doesn’t imprint on the viewer in the way it perhaps should. It’s hard to swallow and occasionally overpowering (especially during and after the film’s climax), but Judas and the Black Messiah is just metabolized too quickly. To put it in culinary terms, it feels as though it was made from pure protein and sugar which are broken down immediately and furnish a rapid and immediately available energy boost where in fact it would have benefitted from having a bit more fibre and longer polysaccharides in its makeup which would elongate the film’s digestion process.  

That’s what I think the problem with this movie is. It is equally affecting in the moment as it is completely forgettable. Judas and the Black Messiah has its moments and it surely deserved the accolades it received, but it is incapable of leaving a mark. And at least from where I am sitting it sure looked like Shaka King was not making this movie because it was a good way to kill a few weekends, but because he believed in the importance of the story. I think everyone involved in making this movie hoped they would get the viewers to think a bit about how our history is written often by truly sinister forces and how potentially disruptive individuals are neutralized despite the fact they had a net positive influence on the society at large. I believe Shaka King wanted to show the world that the Black Panther movement was led by people who had the best interest of their communities at heart and felt forced to act in questionable ways to achieve their goals. I think he wanted to show Fred Hampton as a man who was able to galvanize communities that on paper should never ever co-operate with each other. Most importantly, he wanted to expose the American government of its time (and maybe even draw a parallel to the present climate as well) as morally questionable and perhaps even downright criminal.  

And he did. Unfortunately, not for very long. Judas and the Black Messiah can seriously pummel the viewer into a state of unsettled befuddlement for long enough for them to write their stellar reviews. And then it disappears forever. Thus, it will become that movie you remember once seeing but don’t necessarily remember the title of. And then you’ll rewatch it and wonder why it didn’t win at the Oscars because it’s so powerful, timely and visceral. And then you’ll forget it again. 

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