Let me get on my critical soapbox for a few paragraphs:
In a recent podcast between Bill Simmons and Wesley Morris, the former voices a common refrain lobbed at Judas and the Black Messiah since its release: he complains about the fact that he didn’t know precisely how to feel nor what to think about the Oscar-nominated (it’s insignificant, but: he’s the lead, not supporting) Lakeith Stanfield’s character by the end, even though he was “supposed” to be the bad guy.
Setting aside whatever “supposed to” even means when it comes to art, let’s tackle the “not-knowing” side of his argument.
What I personally appreciate about the movie is how it keeps challenging and reorienting our perception of the characters as their stories unfold. What we’re shown, and how we interpret how we respond to what’s shown, should continually change how we feel and what we think about the characters. Taking and imparting a firm stance on what’s depicted can obviously be the purview of art, as can be being in the business of leaving it up to the audience to decide our own stance, based on what’s presented. One person can watch Judas and the Black Messiah and label Lakeith as the the unequivocal baddie, based on which parts they emphasize, and how they intersect with their personal beliefs.
Others can come away with a more empathetic view of the slippery slope process of how “the bad guy” becomes “the bad guy”. Lakeith’s character is the epitome of a rando who finds himself in waaaay over his head in terms of being a player in historical events; he himself doesn’t even know how he feels nor what he thinks about what’s going on all around him, and because of him. Plus, the movie details how the FBI exploited his station in life for their own gain, which should alter our conception of the exact extent of his “villainous” agency. Lakeith’s ability to reside in an unknowable nether region between “ignorant, down-and-out guy taken advantage of” (which doesn’t absolve him of his sins) and “the bad guy” is one of the many nuances that make the movie compelling.
We can’t know for sure what he’s feeling/thinking, because he doesn’t even know, because that’s how history often feels in the moment for ordinary participants caught up in extraordinary circumstances exponentially above their pay grade. As for what he’s thinking, Simmons bemoans a lack of dialogue scenes in which Lakeith can express himself on these matters; words can constitute a more straightforward — and maybe less realistic? — approach to plumbing the inner psyche, but that assumes the character even has the words to describe themselves and their situation (and it assumes we believe their words to be accurate reflections of either/both). Judas and the Black Messiah refuses to gift-wrap us such knowledge. We’re left to our own devices to analyze all of Lakeith’s wordless moments; we observe his responsive (or not) physicality, and it’s up to us to interpret who he is down deep, which can be unknowable and likely to evolve (and/or devolve) from scene to scene.
History tends to simplify the chaos of life into an easily-digestible narrative; Judas and the Black Messiah complicates this 20/20 hindsight by plunging us into the present of the past, implicitly questioning our easy takeaways from the proceedings. The movie isn’t history; it’s about history, specifically: the complications that arise — from the directly involved, to us looking back — for those living through history, whether
they we realize it or not.
Don’t get me wrong: Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t perfect. But its imperfections almost make the movie more interesting; it’s harder to read, and thus, to facilely categorize. A charitable take on Simmons’ comments is that Lakeith’s arc fails to justify why he’s the focus over Fred Hampton, but “I want a different movie than this one” is kind of shallow without reckoning with what this movie actually is, and refracting the various arcs seems to be its modus operandi.
Also, history movies aren’t zero sum; this isn’t Hollywood’s sole opportunity to tell Hampton’s tale. If enough people leave Judas and the Black Messiah sharing Simmons’ desire to see another Fred Hampton movie, then that should bolster the chances of its eventual existence.