‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Has Oscar Qualities but Could Still Come Up Short

Shaka King's passionate film boasts Oscar-worthy performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, but marketing to Academy members will be key to its success.

Director SHAKA KING Judas and the Black Messiah
Courtesy of Glen Wilson

With “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Warner Bros. (and now HBO Max) has the makings of a dynamic and refreshing awards contender on their hands. Knowing the tastes of Oscar voters, including the newer members that have changed the landscape of nominees and winners in the past few years, it could rally support in all the major categories, including best picture, director (Shaka King), lead actor (Lakeith Stanfield), supporting actor (Daniel Kaluuya), supporting actress (Dominique Fishback), original screenplay (Shaka King, Will Berson, Keith Lucas and Kenneth Lucas), production design (Sam Lisenco, Rebecca Brown), cinematography (Sean Bobbitt), costume design (Charlese Antoinette Jones), film editing (Kristan Sprague), sound (Marlowe Taylor, Rich Bologna, Skip Lievsay) and original song (“Fight for You” written by Grammy winner H.E.R., Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas).

Twelve possible nominations are laying upon the feet of the 97-year old studio. So why does it feel we should prepare ourselves for an inevitable fumble of the ball when we are so close to the Oscars field goal line? Because we’ve been here before.

Co-writer and director Shaka King, a former student of Spike Lee at NYU, echoes William Friedkin’s style as seen in 1971’s “The French Connection.” A call-back to arguably the best decade of cinema when new storytelling methods emerged and all-time filmmakers staked their claim to the title. The director’s branch could be so inventive to select his name, and he’s in the awards conversation.

Lakeith Stanfield, who has shown his chops with an outstanding debut in “Short Term 12” before graduating to memorable turns in “Selma,” “Get Out,” and “Sorry to Bother You,” delivers his best performance yet. His Bill O’Neal is just as, if not more complex, as compared to someone like Gary Oldman (“Mank”). If nominated, he would be the second-youngest Black lead actor nominee ever, just behind Daniel Kaluuya’s first nomination for “Get Out.”

Kaluuya has the structural Oscar bones of an acting winner. Big speeches, emotional delivery and a fiery portrayal will likely be the film’s best shot at major Oscar attention. He would make history, becoming the youngest Black actor to receive two acting nominations. In fact, if both Stanfield and Kaluuya are nominated, it would be the first time that the Academy nominated two Black actors from the same film.

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Lakeith Stanfield in “Judas and the Black Messiah” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

The duo is made even stronger by the understated and resonating work of young Dominique Fishback. Not having as much screen time as other supporting actress contenders is the type of work you can blink and miss if you’re not looking for it. Looking at past nominees like Catherine Keener in “Capote,” who received a nomination when her screen time was also lacking, she could find her way with no hiccups in the 2005-2006 awards season. As it stands, Fishback is one of the only Black performers in the supporting actress race, with all our hopes of diversity in the lineup resting on the shoulders of Yuh-Jung Youn in “Minari.” If that fails to materialize, an all-white supporting actress lineup is inevitable. We can hope voters consider what Fishback brings to her role, especially in the film’s heartwrenching climax.

All the technical categories are on the table, but Sean Bobbitt’s masterful camerawork highlights that the veteran cinematographer has yet to find Academy recognition. This is the same DP that shot the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” “Shame,” and “Widows.” It’s about time he’s given his moment at the Dolby Theatre (or virtually from his living room, whatever ends up happening).

The story surrounding the betrayal and assassination of Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton has had all the makings of a biopic for more than 50 years. Variety profiled the difficult journey of bringing it to the screen with the cast and filmmakers, including producers Ryan Coogler and Charles D. King. The Hollywood machine will always be the culprit of the crime that fails to get important stories to the screen in favor of insatiable, overdone narratives that we’ve seen repeated in the history of cinema. When it comes to the awards season game, when you are a studio that is four years older than the Academy, there’s an expectation to know your “customers” and how best to sell them on your “product.”

WB hasn’t won the best picture statuette since 2012’s “Argo.” Since then, two distributors, A24 and Neon, were established and won the Oscars’ top prize for a Black LGBTQ drama (“Moonlight”) and a South Korean dark comedy (“Parasite”), both of which were the first of their kind. Hell, even Searchlight Pictures, which celebrated its 25th-anniversary last year, managed wins for films about slavery (“12 Years a Slave”), the American theatre (“Birdman”) and a woman who has sex with a fish (“The Shape of Water). While WB seems to be giving underserved voices a platform to tell stories, the sliver of failing to stress their importance in the realm of a cinematic year has been coming up short.

Last year, Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival with the star power of Michael B. Jordan and Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx (“Ray”). Debuting to critical acclaim, the film played the festival circuit before its limited release on Christmas Day and a wider rollout on Jan. 10, four days after Academy members had submitted their nomination ballots. The film’s only major accolades was a sole supporting actor nomination for Foxx at the SAG Awards. Looking at the studio’s past awards outings, there seems to be a trend in what’s successful and what falters.

With their 2019 roster, WB led the nomination tally on Oscar morning with Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” an achievement that can’t be understated for the superhero genre. Some would argue that the superhero genre is too often overlooked and not considered “real cinema.” Point taken, but when assessing the efforts for a film that managed a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes, their two most critically acclaimed films were essentially invisible in the season razzle-dazzle including Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light” (88% on RT) and Cretton’s “Just Mercy” (84% on RT). Even Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” (63% on RT) found its way to a Golden Globe nomination for best original score (Daniel Pemberton), albeit very deserving. So why can they overcome and navigate a mountain such as getting a superhero film to become the most nominated in the genre’s history, including a win in best actor for Joaquin Phoenix? Is the familiarity of producers such as Bradley Cooper that attracts the pen to the paper ballots? Surely a factor, but not necessarily that simple.

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Daniel Kaluuya in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.) Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

In 2018, the studio rightfully went all-in on Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut “A Star is Born” (90% on RT), netting eight nominations and a win for Lady Gaga in best original song. On the flip side, Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” was also a box-office smash and mustered nominations from the Golden Globes in best picture (comedy or musical) and the SAG awards in best cast ensemble. However, on Oscar nomination morning, no mentions in any categories. Films come up short in best picture all the time, and a comedy is no stranger to this fact. Still, they couldn’t market a narrative to get longtime veteran actress Michelle Yeoh a nomination in supporting actress or the script included among a very thin adapted screenplay race. You can go on further and look at “Dunkirk” over “Wonder Woman” (shutout at the Oscars) or “Mad Max: Fury Road” over “Creed” (the only nomination was for Sylvester Stallone). The through-line from WB to the Academy only seems to be heard when it comes to certain films and a particular type of look.

There are two ways to assess this trend. One is AMPAS’ inability to view cinema that features people and stories that look different from their own, which has been an ongoing issue for some time and led to the Academy’s Inclusion and Diversity standards announcement.  The other is how studios, not just WB, and how they market these types of movies as an accomplishment in the year’s cinematic roster. You can drive a conversation about your film’s most indelible elements by utilizing the film community at large, particularly journalists of color who can speak to a viewpoint that doesn’t pigeonhole your awards narrative. Expanding the conversation and including those diverse voices allows accessibility for your film to the Academy-at-large.

It can be harsh to put so much responsibility and accountability at the foot of WB. While there have been missteps, this is also the same studio that got Alfonso Cuarón, the first Mexican and Latino filmmaker, an Oscar for best director for “Gravity.” However, would he have been so successful if the Sandra Bullock and George Clooney vehicle had starred Rosie Perez and Jeffrey Wright? That can surely be debated.

The thing that most films about POC need in awards conversations is time. Unfortunately, they don’t have the luxury of pulling the last-minute release into an awards season and getting journalists to give the headlines “it’s a game-changer” narrative like “Million Dollar Baby” did in 2004, another WB production. So when “Judas and the Black Messiah” has a social embargo that drops in the middle of SAG voting, but official reviews are still being held, it only continues to stack the deck against the film, making a formidable play in various categories. And “time” isn’t always on the people’s side. Universal Pictures’ had box office and reviews on its side for “Straight Outta Compton” in 2015, and only the White screenwriters were able to find their way onto a shortlist.

The plea to voters, especially in this unique awards year, where the parties are non-existent, and “time” is in rare availability, is to watch as many movies as possible. Not just your typical fodder from a recommendation of your buddy producer, but seek out a sincere recommendation from a journalist you may not know or an outlet you’ve seldom visited. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is unconventional, utterly worthy of Academy voters in an unconventional year.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” will be released on HBO Max on Feb. 12.

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