‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ meets the moment

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is no biopic, at least not by any average measure. It is, first and foremost, a thriller — a crackling piece of political, social and historical intrigue that resurrects the ‘70s stylings of Sidney Lumet, whose collaborations with Al Pacino on classics like “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico” laid the gritty, grimy groundwork for the crime movies of today.

If writer/director Shaka King — in collaboration with producer Ryan Coogler, better known as the director of “Fruitvale Station,” “Creed” and “Black Panther” — is channeling Sidney Lumet, it is tempting to cast Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) in the role of Al Pacino. And while his turn as Fred Hampton, the tragically young chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, is the British actor’s most dynamic and absorbing performance to date, it is instead LaKeith Stanfield (“Sorry to Bother You”) who represents the beating heart of this pulsating picture.

Stanfield plays Bill O’Neal, to whom we are introduced at the start of the film as he is impersonating an FBI agent. O’Neal bursts into a Black-owned bar, confiscates the belongings of its patrons and hijacks one of their cars. When he’s caught by a real FBI agent (Jesse Plemons), he explains: “A badge is scarier than a gun.”

Bill is facing five years of jail time, but the FBI cuts him a deal. If he can infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and earn the trust of its charismatic chairman, Fred Hampton, the Bureau will forget that anything ever happened. Bill agrees.

In Stanfield’s hands, Bill is everything from a conniving weasel to an almost tragic hero. The subtleties in his performance are simply unmatched: his attempts to suppress a smile, for example, as he’s delighted by his own cleverness, or the tears he works to conceal as he comes to understand the FBI’s true purpose. If you’re familiar with Fred Hampton as a historical figure (and you go to church every Easter), it should come as no surprise, then, that Bill is the titular Judas. And even though we know the way this ends, the brilliance of Stanfield’s performance is that a part of us likes him in spite of that.

The Golden Globes, however, have elected Kaluuya for awards season glory, and you can’t really blame them. He’s a bit too old for the role — Hampton was only 21, while Kaluuya is a decade his senior — and had King and Coogler cast a younger actor, perhaps the tragedy of the story would be more acutely felt. But as it stands, Kaluuya is hypnotizing, galvanizing the audience in much the same way that the real Fred Hampton galvanized the city of Chicago. Dominique Fishback — coming off a breakout performance in Netflix’s “Project Power” — nails a much more adult role as Hampton’s partner in life, while Jesse Plemons of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” proves he’s one of the most capable character actors in the industry. Martin Sheen (in Rudy Giuliani-esque makeup) as J. Edgar Hoover isn’t quite as compelling, but I’ll forgive it.

As much the star of the film as Kaluuya, though, is writer/director King, who explodes onto the cinematic scene with only his sophomore effort. As a director, King demonstrates a mastery of mise en scene in his recreation of the turbulent streets of 1960s Chicago — aided, of course, by Steve McQueen’s frequent cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and a searing score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris. Meanwhile, as a writer, King leans into the radicalism of Hampton’s politics, involving the story in the civil rights struggle that’s unfolding still to this day.

In a year overflowing with films about this era — Aaron Sorkin’s undercooked “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Regina King’s much better “One Night in Miami” — “Judas and the Black Messiah” handily takes the crown. Like the films of Sidney Lumet, it could one day be a classic. 8/10

This review was originally published on February 16, 2021 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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