Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

It's a breeze to point to aspects of "Judas and the Black Messiah" that work spectacularly well.

It's an utterly timely story directed with astonishing flair by Shaka King, whose background in TV directing and mostly TV comedy directing didn't have this sort of bombastic assertiveness and heft. Sean Bobbitt's cinematography is lovely, especially when he shoots at nighttime.

The performances are nearly all superb.

Daniel Kaluuya is obviously at the forefront a generation of great Black, British actors and there's no surprise to his giving a great performance, but his best work previously had been of more of a slow-burn variety and so it's great to see him doing something so instantly incendiary. He leads with the explosive bits rather than leading with the quiet bits and then he has just enough quiet bits with a terrific Dominque Fishback to make Fred Hampton feel like a person and not an icon.

Lakieth Stanfield is another actor whose greatness isn't surprising, but whose specific type of greatness here is a little different. He's a lover of oddball quirks and sometimes it feels like he starts the performance from the quirks and builds inward from there. Here, his Bill O'Neal starts from a "normal" place and the quirks pop up throughout, whether it's a strange line-reading here or there or the unexpected pride he takes in certain aspects of what starts as a job and becomes his life.

If I'm waffling on a score for "Judas and the Black Messiah," it's because I'm not sure it nails O'Neal's arc on the page. You get the push and pull to the character, but I'm not sure I ever got how this experience was changing him on a cellular level. And maybe Bill himself didn't know? Maybe the writers decided, probably correctly, that adding three small scenes — one articulating his ideology more clearly at the beginning, one doing the same in the middle and one checking in at the end — would have imposed a definitive arc on a man whose actual journey was much muddier if not completely unknowable. I'm fairly sure that if you asked me BEFORE seeing the movie whether I'd have preferred the version WITH dot-connecting to the version WITHOUT dot-connecting, I'd have told you that I didn't want my hand held. So maybe there was a happy medium somewhere? Dunno. Or maybe it's Hampton's arc that I needed spelled out a little more?

Damnit, "Judas and the Black Messiah," why couldn't you have been 10 percent more conventional for this 40-something white critic?!?!?

Yeah. Ignore me. Completely.

[At least five percent of this "request"/desire probably stems from still not understanding why the movie decided to campaign Kaluuya for awards as "supporting" and Stanfield as "lead."]

On the other hand, don't ignore me on this: Martin Sheen is BAD as J. Edgar Hoover and the makeup, which makes him look much more like a late-life Strom Thurmond than the legendary head of the FBI, was BAD. I don't think the movie had any clue what to do with Hoover as an idea, but having J. Edgar Hoover just having a random racist conversation with an Illinois field officer mid-movie for no reason? That's not good. Better not to have him at all. That part I'm confident in.

Anyway... very good movie.