Judas and the Black Messiah: Daniel Kaluuya is transcendent in this thrilling picture

The story of the killing of a young Black Panther is flawed but fiercely muscular

Judas and the Black Messiah
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Director: Shaka King
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson
Runing Time: 2 hrs 6 mins

We have recently seen a lot of decent, respectable, borderline dreary historical dramas – naming no names – creeping onto our smaller screens. Good acting. Polite set-dressing. Cosy liberal politics. You know? The sort of beasts that have always interested the awards bodies.

Judas and the Black Messiah is something different. Shaka King's take on the demise of Fred Hampton, the Illinois Black Panther leader, is not without its flaws. The film is shot in a flat style that suggests high-end television. Nobody looks much like the person they are playing. The stunt casting of nice Martin Sheen as J Edgar Hoover – "What will you do when she brings home a negro?" he asks malevolently of an underling's daughter – is scarcely 40 per cent as clever as the film thinks it to be.

Judas and the Black Messiah is, nonetheless, a fiercely muscular entertainment that engages enthusiastically with the Black Panther legacy and the fertilising establishment paranoia. Cut to a persuasive, mournful score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris – bolstered by blasting contemporaneous jazz from the likes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Eddie Gale – the picture has not come to soothe or to pacify. It is all the better for that.

Forming an accidental trilogy with Spike Lee's cracking BlacKkKlansman and Lee Daniels's recent, unsatisfactory The United States vs Billie Holiday, the picture hangs around the conflicts of an African-American undercover operative. Shaka King and Will Berson's script has the authorities nabbing imaginative conman Bill O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) as he is making nefarious use of a fake FBI badge. Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), the Fed in charge, offers the anti-hero a deal: the charges will be dropped if he goes undercover in Hampton's operation.

The compromises of awards season being what they are, Daniel Kaluuya, transcendent as Hampton, is the current favourite for best supporting actor Oscar, but, as the title suggests, Judas and the Black Messiah is dealing in duelling lead performances. Introducing the story via transcripts of an interview recorded decades later, O'Neal juggles moral quandaries with the invention required to stay undetected in such a dangerous environment. Hampton seeks to inspire a movement while the state flirts with the ultimate sanction.

Something is lost in casting an older actor as the Panther leader. Kaluuya is no greybeard, but, at 32, he is more than a decade senior to Hampton when the FBI and police gunned him down in 1969. It is worth remembering that the challenge was coming not just from people of colour but also from youth. Stockier and perkier than the Hampton we see in archival footage, the British actor nonetheless triumphs as a semi-fictionalised variation.

The picture is eager to remind us that, as well as being an advocate for black power, the Panthers were part of a worldwide socialist movement. The community work is as important as the preparations for armed resistance. Some may find the scene in which Hampton wins over a crowd of proto-Trumpians – dispossessed white folk eager to blame their woes on another excluded group – a tad on-the-nose, but, an eager advocate, Kaluuya bosses aside objections (theirs and ours) with his ironic, skewed charisma.

Elsewhere, the brilliant Dominique Fishback dominates all her scenes as Deborah Johnson, Hampton's romantic partner and external conscience. Though only a few years younger than Kaluuya, the American polymath really does radiate youthful resistance. Stanfield builds on an already stellar reputation.

None of this sound work would much matter if the film were short of energy. In his first feature, King powers the story forward with the momentum of an escalating riot. There is a thrill to the inevitable shoot-outs, but the picture also allows in the horrific repercussions of political violence.

It ends with the terrible mess through which we are all still living. A thrilling picture. But also a sobering one.

Available on digital platforms from March 11th