I don't like the word "biopic," which is prone to mispronunciation and promises something dull and dutiful, so I'm thrilled to report that "Judas and the Black Messiah" is a biopic that's really an action movie.
As conceived by director Shaka King, who also wrote the screenplay with Will Berson, it shifts between the points of view of three characters, whose conflicting motives supply tension that constantly escalates. The protagonist is Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a small-time crook pressured into being an informer by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). O'Neal is central to the FBI's efforts to get rid of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whom O'Neal befriends and betrays.
It is a movie of Scorsesian intensity, with both O'Neal and Hampton in near-constant danger and Plemons increasingly uncomfortable with orders that come to him straight from FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in makeup that makes him look like he's in a Mr. Potato Head biopic). As if in recognition that the material is incendiary enough, King's filmmaking hangs back, coolly and calmly depicting O'Neal's dangerous bond with Hampton in the late 1960s, when his power as a revolutionary leader was rapidly increasing.
Kaluuya is electrifying as Hampton, a fiery character in his early 20s who is absolutely nothing like the one Kaluuya played in his breakthrough, "Get Out." (Hampton also was briefly depicted in last year's "Trial of the Chicago 7" and has featured prominently in several documentaries, including "Eyes on the Prize.")
But the star of the movie is Stanfield, an actor playing a character who's essentially an actor. There's a dead quality to Stanfield's eyes in much of "Judas," as if his soul already has checked out, but his intelligence makes us believe in this Judas' quick-thinking escapes from seemingly impossible situations. We understand both how he was stupid enough to get stuck in his dilemma and how he's smart enough to survive it.
Most moviegoers who see "Judas" probably know how the story ends, but even there, the movie still has a shocker up its sleeve. King makes the final scenes with Hampton, which rely on eyewitness accounts for their specifics, sickeningly tense. And, just when you think it's all over, King reminds us that the sort of historic trauma that was touched off by incidents like this never ends.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
Judas and the Black Messiah
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: R for violence and strong language.
Where: Wide release and on HBO Max.