By Leah Greenblatt
February 01, 2021 at 11:00 PM EST
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You can't buy a ticket to the revolution. (Right now, it's still questionable whether you can even buy one to a multiplex.) But being immersed in a movie like Judas and The Black Messiah for the duration of its two-hour-plus runtime feels like the next closest thing: a biography so fully, soulfully realized that it shakes the dust off of history.

Black Messiah isn't the first time that the spirit, at least, of late Black Panther Fred Hampton has made its way to the screen; aspects of his story have been featured in over a dozen documentaries, and more recently via a fine supporting turn by Kelvin Harrison Jr. in last year's busy Aaron Sorkin Netflix drama The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Credit: Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.

Still it's hard to imagine that going forward it will be defined by anything other than Daniel Kaluuya's powerhouse performance in Shaka King's astonishing new drama, which premiered Monday night at the Sundance Film Festival. That's how completely the British actor embodies Hampton, a Chicago native whose perceived radicalism and unquestionable charisma made him a prime target of the FBI under J. Edgard Hoover in the late 1960s.    

Hoover (played here by Martin Sheen, preening and fuming beneath a thick putty of prosthetics) wanted Black power neutralized — which by his extrajudicial methods meant enlisting an agent (Jesse Plemons) to recruit a teenage car thief named William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) who would in turn infiltrate the local Panthers party, befriend Fred, and ultimately betray him.  

It would have been easy no doubt to make O'Neal the heel, but Stanfield plays him less as a straight villain than a lost jittery kid, too intent on basic survival to have ever even had the chance to care where his politics fell. Plemons (The Irishman, I'm Thinking of Ending Things) also brings unexpected depth to Roy Mitchell, the agent whose cheerful Midwestern affect leans toward menace one moment and real moral conflict the next.

As Deborah, Hampton's co-revolutionary and later his lover, Dominique Fishback (consistently great even in blockbuster nonsense like last year's Project Power) carves out an unshowy but quietly impactful place on screen — a poet and a fighter whose inner fire matches Fred's, but whose softer feelings serve as a corrective to him too; even in the resoluteness of their struggle, she sees the human costs he can't.

King, who also copenned the script, gives the movie a lush high-theatrical style, full of artful tableaux and restless, rippling energy. His camera sweeps grandly through fiery speeches and balletically choreographed showdowns, then scales down to capture the more intimate moments in between in a way that feels urgent but never hurried. (It doesn't hurt, certainly, that he and co-screenwriter Will Berson narrow the film's focus down to a period of months, rather than the cradle-to-grave timeline of a typical biopic).

But Black Messiah's center of gravity has to be a Hampton you can't look away from, and Kaluuya — alternately raw, tender, and incendiary — duly electrifies every scene he's in. Righteous as the road may be, his Fred hasn't been flattened to fit the broad Wikipedia-worn contours of a martyr or a hero; he lives and breathes, down to the last indelible frame. Grade: A–

Judas and The Black Messiah will be released in select theaters, and stream for one month on HBO Max, beginning Feb. 12.

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