2021 Oscar Reviews: Judas and the Black Messiah

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed and the nominees are yet to be announced, giving me a chance to get an oxymoronic late jump-start on this year’s anticipated nominees. Today we cover…

Judas and the Black Messiah

[5 nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), Best Supporting Actor (LaKeith Stanfield), and Best Cinematography]

Uh oh. I think I’m hitting Movie Fatigue. At some point in this annual binge, cramming in all these movies becomes a chore, and I just run out of opinions. Is it fair to the movie I wind up reviewing at this point? No! Which means… sucks to be you, Judas! Still, I’ll do my best.

I was looking forward to watching this one, and it was totally fine. Nothing really wrong with it. On the other hand, nothing that got me too excited. And that might be the main take-away here, for better or for worse. Judas and the Black Messiah can be best contrasted against fellow potential nominee, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, which happens in the same place and time and even overlaps a couple characters. And yet, Chicago 7 was much more engaging and entertaining. Why? Well, from what I gathered, the creators of Judas were careful to maintain historical accuracy, at times sacrificing entertainment value. For example, the fatal “shoot-out” was perfect for a big dramatic violent climax. And yet, according to witnesses, it didn’t go down that way. The agents just sorta walked in the front door, shot off 100 rounds in a big barrage, and then that was it. So that’s what the film showed. Chicago 7 also was selective in its storytelling to exaggerate the virtue and innocence of our protagonists, and the evil of our antagonists. But Judas takes a more even and honest approach, leaving us to make our own decisions on which aspects of our characters and their actions are or are not admirable.

My personal favorite thing about the film resides in this historical accuracy, because it if a history with which I was not previous familiar. Watching it at home, every couple minutes I was googling another person, or event, or organization. So, thanks to this movie, I learned a lot. On the other hand, the movie moves through some of these aspects so quickly that the film itself isn’t really doing the teaching. Was this intentional by the filmmakers, to inspire people to look further on their own? Maybe, and if so, then job well done. On the other hand… It doesn’t help make the movie itself interesting. A solid example is a very short scene where Fred Hampton (played by Golden Globe winner Daniel Kaluuya) stops by what seems to be a white supremacist meeting, exchanges a couple words, and then a scene later these racists are standing side by side with the Black Panthers proclaiming a coolition. What?! That lead me to learning about a group called the Young Patriots Organization for the first time ever. I’d bet most other viewers also had never heard of a left-wing urban gang of poor southern whites, a concept so foreign and weird to modern viewers that a bit more explanation here could have been helpful.

Along those lines, I found it odd that, despite all the carefully researched accurate details, the filmmakers cast actors much older than the main characters they were portraying. This is not a slight on the performers themselves, who were all fine. Kaluuya won a best supporting actor Golden Globe for his role as Hampton. And LaKeith Stanfield was absolutely perfect as William O’Neil, delivering strong and subtle performance as the Judas skirting between fear for his life, and sympathy for the group he’s infiltrated. But both of these actors are a whopping decade older than their characters. Those ages are part of the story, but they were ommitted. On one hand, it’s insane that Hampton managed to achieve so much before being killed at age 21. The first thing I thought when I heard his age was “whoa, imagine how much more he could have achieved if he’d been allowed to live!” It is the epitome of wasted potential. His execution by police was infuriating enough to begin with, but realizing that he was such a young person just makes it even more poingnant and tragic. Contrast that with O’Neil, who was literally just a teenager when he got coerced by the FBI into becoming an informant. He was basically a child! How very unfair to trap someone so young into such an insane, inescapable situation. Stanfield is a fantastic actor, but despite his talents, he cannot pull off looking like a 19 year old.

I guess I still had quite a bit to say, despite thinking I had nothing to say. In short: this movie fills an important role in introducing many of us to history and stories that most of us didn’t get to learn in school. The execution is fine. Does it rise to the level of Oscar-worthiness? Eh, I dunno. I think the history is more interesting than the fictionalization.

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