JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH. As the eternal shuffle-step march of our plague years continues, as dates lose significance and shocks remain unsurprising, it can sometimes feel as if nothing is normal but everything is mundane. This paradigm shift — or slide, or decay, whatever one prefers — is not without some benefits. I cannot say I am glad that I have not seen a movie in a theater in almost a year; of course not. Has the pandemic reinforced the knowledge that I am a deeply introverted weirdo who would "quarantine" voluntarily, should it prove viable? Sure it has. But I remain steeped in the mythological occasion of going to the movies, so even as the poor behavior and questionable taste of the species has eroded my reverence, while technology has simultaneously brought a remarkably good facsimile of the theatrical experience into my living room, there are times when I miss it. I do not miss enduring the repeated three-hour cacophony of a certain self-serious costume-hero franchise, nor do I regret the absence of that predictable but somehow always new, little feeling of devastation brought about by a joylessly bad movie.
The new era of watching from home, the embarrassment of riches provided by streaming services, has brought perhaps an even greater proportion of garbage content heaving into view. But it has also allowed for a greater degree of control, a curation that can somehow embrace both surprise and predictability. We can give ourselves what we want and, lacking the quasi-binding contract of sitting in an auditorium with strangers, we do not have to sit through anything we do not like. This new model of self-determination in entertainment, coupled with an industry divided by holding its breath or adapting to the times, has flattened the curve delineating "good" from "bad": unless we really seek it out, we are increasingly unlikely to be bowled over by anything from the extremes of the spectrum. For better and worse, that is one thing I actually miss. A sense of uncertainty that, unlike our questions about the survival of the species or of representative democracy, can actually produce fun surprises.
Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an experience that, absent the constant hectoring of theatrical trailers, came as a truly unexpected pleasure, a reminder that cinema is still alive and lively, a conduit to elevated experience even, as is distinctly the case here, when it describes the crimes and degradations of the past.
Developed from a story idea by Keith and Kenny Lucas, Will Berson and Shaka King (screenplay by Berson and King, King directing), Judas interpolates the minutiae surrounding the real-life assassination of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a casualty in FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's (Martin Sheen) extended campaign against Black America. As the Panthers gain traction as a community service organization and a practical means to create change, with charismatic leaders like Hampton with powerful oratory and the determination to support it with action continuing to emerge, Hoover meets the threat of potential racial fairness with misinformation, infiltration and murder. Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), presented here as a good soldier perhaps on the verge of developing a social conscience, is tasked with finding and placing an informant within the Panther organization, someone who can get close enough to Hampton to both provide intelligence and potentially corrupt the leadership. Mitchell finds his plant in Bill O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an itinerant car thief presented with the option of five-plus years in prison or a job working for The Man. As is usually the case, it's not really much of a choice.
And so O'Neal ingratiates himself with Hampton, with his allegiance to the Panthers (and his ethical crisis) deepening all the while. The more committed to the movement he gets, though, the more Mitchell demands of him, until he is tasked with the unthinkable.
Kaluuya dominates the frame whenever he appears, whether delivering breathtaking speeches or awkwardly courting the soon-to-be mother of his child, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). Stanfield plays the foil with astounding alacrity, finding the balance between humor and pathos, loyalty and self-preservation, that define a man trapped by circumstance. Even with performances as powerful as these at the center of the piece, though, King emerges as the star. His control of the narrative, his ability to infuse scenes with concurrent space and tension, his distinctive grasp of composition and camera movement, announce a formidable talent; an artist with something to say and the means to express it. As heartbreaking as Judas can be, as much as it serves as a reminder of the legacy of suppression and terror that is very much a part of this country's identity, it is also hugely entertaining, compulsively watchable and a reminder not to let ourselves get too jaded; there are still some surprises in store. R. 126M. HBOMAX.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.