by Rob DiCristino
Here’s the truth about Awards Season, one that any faithful reader of this site already knows: Most of the Hollywood films nominated for major awards in a given year are thoroughly unremarkable exercises in calculated marketing intended to check as many tried-and-true Oscar buttons as possible. Actors are positioned for awards because they’re “owed.” Studios spend oodles promoting so-called “contenders” because they know that a product’s name recognition is more powerful than its genuine quality. Great works of cinematic innovation always sneak their way into nominations, of course, and some even go home with justly-deserved hardware, but the reality is that Awards Bait has long-since become a genre of its own, something entirely separate from the conventional moviegoing landscape. Will our post-COVID entertainment industry sustain that model? Will the invisible line between Prestige and Populist entertainment remain in a world with no box office? It’s hard to tell.
While that description makes the film sound like grim, sobering homework, Judas and the Black Messiah is an effortlessly captivating watch thanks to star-making performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield, Shaka King’s gorgeous direction, and a screenplay (co-written by King and Will Berson) that refuses to compromise the moral ambiguity and incredible human cost of true revolution. At just twenty-one years old, Fred Hampton had already made a name for himself as one of Chicago’s most inspirational advocates for social justice. His words spoke not just to African Americans, but to the militant downtrodden of all shapes, colors, and creeds. O’Neal spends much of Judas and the Black Messiah watching Hampton risk his life and reputation to build consensus among competing factions, at one point going so far as to address a group of self-described “white trash” and remind them who their real oppressors are: Police, governmental agencies, and any other entity aiming to reserve the American Dream for only a chosen few.