Hello, and welcome to Oscar Season! Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be reviewing every single one of the Best Picture nominees for this year’s Academy Awards (due to happen at the end of April). So that you, dear readers, can get your fresh Hot Takes on everything Oscar-y and come to any fancy themed dinner parties with all the knowledge you need to impress and success.
And first off, we’re looking at Judas and The Black Messiah, the Fred Hampton/William O’Neill biopic following O’Neill’s involvement as an FBI informant on the Hampton-led Chicago branch of the Black Panthers in the late sixties. Directed by Shaka King and released last year, it’s one of those movies that I both knew was going to be an inevitable obsession of the Oscars (given the historical setting, awards-beloved casting, and just the sheer buzz around even the first trailer) and an inevitable obsession of mine, too.
And a big part of that is because of the cast. Of the big-name prestige actors in Hollywood right now, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, and Lakeith Stanfield are some of the best and most interesting out there; I’ve yet to see any of them turn in a bad or even uninteresting performance, and usually, they’re a mark of a fascinating project. All three of them together? Yeah, that’s something else entirely. Kaluuya as Hampton is everything you want him to be: though he’s significantly older than the man he’s playing, his skill and experience allow him to bring a real sense of urgency and weight to the role. Stanfield (who I fell in love with in Sorry to Bother You, the criminally underrated Boots Riley satire) probably has the harder role out of the two, given that he’s got to leave the audience constantly guessing as to his motivations and his true desires – whose side is he on, if anyone’s? – but he manages to ground it in something that feels real instead of leaving the character feeling ephemeral as a result.
But I think what I find most interesting about the film is that it is not just an attempt to retell this (compelling, fascinating, terrifying) story in the most stylish way it can. No, it’s a movie about revolution – at the centre of this film is a recreation of Hampton’s “I am a revolutionary” speech, and it’s really everything upon which this story hangs. A vital part of this movie comes in the form of Deborah Hampton (what should be a star-making performance from Dominique Fishback), and the way she deals with Fred – with whose child she is pregnant for most of the movie – and the sacrifice that he seems to hold central to his idea of revolution. To sacrifice her body would be to sacrifice the life of her child, too – and to lose Fred, as she was soon to, is to lose her partner and the father of her child. She reads Fred a poem she wrote about the two of them, as the film cuts away to another member of the party being gunned down by the police. Loss seems an inherent part of the revolution, but the human cost of that loss remains. Judas and the Black Messiah wants to explore the personal and the political, and the occasionally uncomfortable points where they overlap.
I am delighted to kick off Oscar Season with such a brilliant movie; Judas and The Black Messiah is one to savour, a fascinating, nuanced, and beautifully-constructed take on a complex story, performed to near-perfection by an excellent cast. With so much expectation on it, it’s really a miracle that it managed to not only live up to that, but to exceed it, too.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Roger Ebert)