Despite its pretentious title, this is a no-nonsense dramatization of the short life of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whose natural leadership abilities, ready to fill the void left after the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, spelled danger to the FBI. It's also about Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the petty criminal who got roped in by the feds to infiltrate the Panthers and report on Hampton's actions. (Jesse Plemons, your go-to guy when you need someone to embody the banality of evil, plays O'Neal's taskmaster at the Bureau.)
What I really like about Judas and the Black Messiah is its dedication to recreating late 1960s Chicago in every detail. The story partly takes place at the same time as Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 – each film references events in the other – yet while Sorkin's dialogue sounds, well, Sorkinesque, the dialogue in Judas (screenplay by Will Berson and director King, story by Keith and Kenny Lucas) sounds authentic to its time and its people: characters say "Right on" without irony and respectfully call each other "Comrade". If the hair on Chicago 7's cast looked rather like a bunch of wigs, the afros sported in Judas look as though the actors grew them themselves (even if they didn't). Moreover, the characters look like plain folks, not Instagram influencers; their very bodies have a late '60s softness, in place of the 21st century gym-chiseled physiques that distract from so many period pictures. King and company worked hard to make us feel like We Are There, and the results are impressive.
Kaluuya is particularly convincing as Hampton, a man so dedicated to his cause that he could barely say anything off-message. And I really got a sense of how much hope the Black Panther Party offered to so many in the 1960s – how earnest its goals were, and how sad that it all fell apart, thanks in no small part to the vicious FBI tactics depicted in the film. Disempowering black people was the late-life obsession of Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover, but while Martin Sheen is decent in the role, his prosthetic makeup is so awful that he hardly even looks like a human being, much less like Hoover. It's the one and only blunder in an otherwise seamless film. Considering that Hoover only pops up in a couple of scenes, King should have cast a lesser-known actor who actually looked the part.
While Judas and the Black Messiah might run a little long for some, I appreciated how well it recounted a tragic, complex, and relevant bit of history without resorting to melodrama or cheap tricks. It's a solid film from a promising filmmaker.