William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is arrested by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) and given a choice - infiltrate the Black Panthers in Chicago, or go to jail. As O'Neal gets close to Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the FBI becomes more desperate to stop him, things begin to spiral out of control...
A key problem with many biopics is that there's often a choice in the writing to either try and take in all aspects of a person's life, or simply zero in on one particular moment that makes for something cinematic and compelling. What becomes clear in the telling of 'Judas and the Black Messiah' is that it's not so much that it's the story of a person's life, but rather one that is cut brutally short.
Daniel Kaluuya's performance as the charismatic Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, feels so lived-in and so harried by tension and anger that you're almost shocked when the post-script reveals that he was only 21 when the events of the movie took place. While Hampton's life has been covered in documentary movies such as 'The Murder of Fred Hampton', 'The Weather Underground' and 'Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution', it's never been realised fully in a cinematic sense.
Director Shaka King makes full use of that fact, and gives every available opportunity to Daniel Kaluuya to give a full-hearted performance, and the screen vibrates with his presence. Whether it's something as simple as coldly addressing a classroom, or firing up a massive crowd, you can't help but be utterly compelled by his portrayal and see all too clearly that a horrible fate is before him. By contrast, Lakeith Stanfield's performance is equally as compelling, but for all the opposite reasons.
He is drenched in fear, drowning in anguish, and can barely makes his way through a single scene without his eyes zipping across the screen. It's a tough thing to make a character so easy to hate understandable, let alone likeable, yet the script by Will Berson and Shaka King makes no attempt to soften any of the blows. O'Neal laughs to himself in pride when he successfully cons the Black Panthers, and enjoys the trappings and prestige by the FBI when he hands over information to them. He is every bit the Judas as the title suggests, and while it may humanise his plight, it does not absolve him.
The supporting cast are all equally brilliant in their roles. Jesse Plemons' sheepish FBI agent brandishes his non-racist credentials by claiming he helped in the Chaney-Goodman murders that were fictionalised in 'Mississippi Burning'. Martin Sheen's makeup-heavy J. Edgar Hoover has the dead-eyed fanaticism down to a tee, while Dominique Fishback gives a truly heartbreaking performance as Deborah Johnson, Hampton's romantic partner.
Shaka King's direction is unmuddied, and makes no attempt to dilute Fred Hampton's political ideology or his fiery tirades against police brutality. Likewise, there is nothing in the script by King and Will Berson that even comes close to sensationalising the events. One key scene, for example, sees the Black Panther headquarters under heavy fire. At first, you'd think it's over-the-top - but then the camera pulls back to show a full audience of onlookers, and we know that this scene bears their testimony out. Many of the movie's key moments are positioned with living witnesses in the frame, which gives the movie an authenticity and a greater emotional impact.
'Judas and the Black Messiah' makes no attempt to placate any of the usual sensibilities when it comes to a biopic movie, nor does it seek to excuse or pardon anyone. Instead, it is a forceful, raw account of brutal injustice, violent revolution, and the cost of betrayal in lives left unfulfilled and promises broken.
'Judas and the Black Messiah' is available to rent at home from Thursday, March 11th.