Judas and the Black Messiah is a bold title for a biopic. Its evocation of biblical characters suggests a grand, epic tale of power and betrayal on a scale befitting the most enduring story in the history of humanity – at least in the West. Thank goodness then for Shaka King's potent biopic of Black Panther Party activist Fred Hampton, in which Daniel Kaluuya delivers the performance of his career. There aren't enough Oscars in the world.
But it's not just Kaluuya's take on Hampton in the spotlight. The “Judas” of the title is small-time criminal William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who is snared by the FBI amid an ongoing scam in which he pretends to work for the bureau in order to steal from Black people for whom “a badge is scarier than a gun”. FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) presents O'Neal with an accord. He will receive lenience from the law if he agrees to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Panthers – led by Hampton – and provide intelligence to the FBI from within.
This gives the film a structure which is simultaneously that of a biopic and a gritty crime thriller, with King imbuing the movie as much with the dangerous energy of something like The Departed as any prestige biography. There's a palpable sense of a nation on the cusp of collapse and a movement on the verge of bursting into life, with the forces of the establishment – mostly embodied by Martin Sheen's knowingly pantomimed take on notorious FBI director J Edgar Hoover – determined to maintain the racist status quo.
In the heart of the movie, Kaluuya swirls like a maelstrom built of pure charisma. He's utterly magnetic as Hampton, whether he's thundering through slogans in wide-eyed close-up or showing his tender side while visiting the grieving family of a friend shot dead by cops. Kaluuya embodies Hampton physically with a bulked-up frame and verbally with a distinctive, booming accent. But most importantly, he's believable as a loquacious and determined freedom fighter – a rare Hollywood protagonist who espouses unashamedly socialist politics with passion, conviction and undeniable intensity. When this guy speaks, the world listens.
But this is more than just a portrait of a ferocious orator. It explores Hampton's softer side too, courtesy of his relationship with Deborah (Dominique Fishback) – a bond born of intellect and poetry. Fishback, who was so fantastic in Netflix thriller Project Power last year, brings real nuance and depth to the sort of role which is so often under-written and forgotten about. A scene in which she silently cries as Hampton yells rhetoric about his willingness to die for the cause is beautifully modulated.
In many ways, though, it's Stanfield who's the unsung hero of the movie. While Kaluuya's gravitational pull controls the film whenever he's on screen, it's the conflicted duplicity of O'Neal which provides the story with its spine – a smart shift of perspective by the exceptional script, penned by King with help from Will Berson and the Lucas Brothers. It would be too simplistic to say Stanfield makes the Judas role sympathetic, but he finds an empathy in the predicament of a man forced into the tightest of corners by a corrupt system and watching his situation spiral further into darkness.
King's direction brings a sweaty intensity to every scene, elegantly creating the idea of a society on the brink of an enormous shake-up. He's assisted by a terrific score from Mark Isham and Craig Harris, which carefully accents every moment and often seems to come in bursts of brass or strings. One sequence in which Stanfield's O'Neal is nearly rumbled is handed nail-biting extra tension as plinking strings are joined by a careful drumbeat which becomes a chaotic cacophony as he confronts his fear. It's an epic accompaniment to a tale which is unafraid to rise to the epic scope of its biblical title.
This is an assured and potent sophomore feature from King, whose previous effort was the 2013 stoner comedy Newlyweeds. It's an affectionate tribute to Hampton's legacy, while also working as an engrossing thriller, a crime tale featuring shoot-outs and conspiracies and a rallying cry for a world which still hasn't worked out how to solve the problem of racism. It may have been more than half a century since Fred Hampton was killed, but Judas and the Black Messiah illustrates just how many lessons we still have to learn from him.