The trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah made me doubt how effective the film would actually be. Not because it looked bad, mind you, or uninteresting in any way. But I had flashes to Man of Steel, which lured me to the cinema with a stunning trailer and then turned out to be a soupy mess. Same for Only God Forgives, which had a bangin’ trailer — I remember saying the words “looks amazing” to a friend — and ultimately had about as much substance as the two-minute teaser itself. Well, fool me twice. Trepidation filled the air as the Sundance premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah began, because the first glimpse I’d had of the film was this rollicking hype-train of a masterful trailer:
Shaka King’s first major studio feature, thankfully, is indeed a strong and energetic biopic that doesn’t at all renege on the promise of that trailer. Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and focuses on FBI efforts to suppress and ultimately silence Hampton as he gains more and more popularity nationwide. It’s a long overdue portrayal of a significant figure in American history; before Kelvin Harrison, Jr. played Hampton in a bit part in this past year’s Trail of the Chicago 7, you have to go back to 1999 to find the only other instance of Hampton in another film or TV show (it’s another bit part in the miniseries The ’60s, which is mostly about hippies).
Part of me viewed Black Mass as a critic. I took into consideration the actors, the script, the staging, pacing, etc. What about character arcs? What about historical accuracy? You know: the usual. I considered some of the things that usually pop up on the imaginary checklist (like how many trailer-worthy zingers will we endure?) and a few that were more specific to this film (like will Johnny Depp’s makeup look as bad as it did in the set photos?); I considered that I’d have to play the game where you try to compress and bury all of those checklistable points so that you can actually watch the movie. I considered Out of the Furnace, the last film by Black Mass director Scott Cooper, and the frustrating way in which that film tried and nearly succeeded in being an epic like The Deer Hunter. Somehow, one of Furnace‘s major flaws seemed to be that it was only almost that kind of movie, something that attempted an ambitious feat but failed to stick the landing.
But despite a sneaking suspicion regarding that last point Black Mass is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than Out of the Furnace or even Crazy Heart, Cooper’s first two films which both touted incredible performances but misplaced directorial style, and that’s probably because the other part of me viewed it as a Bostonian. The Globe‘s Ty Burr says it best in his review: “For worse and for worser, James “Whitey” Bulger is a son of Boston, and moviegoers here will react differently to Scott Cooper’s film than they will in Seattle, Dallas, or Dubuque.” That was inescapably true for last night’s Boston Common screening, wherein the feeling was that everyone in the theater was already familiar with what was unfolding up on the screen.