The recent, long-overdue deluge of filmed Black history has been such that Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah invites approach as either a dramatised sequel to January's fine documentary MLK/FBI or deep background for Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7; the movies are beginning to tessellate, a sure sign that gaps are being addressed. King's film looks out onto the dog end of the 1960s, after the Malcolm X and MLK assassinations, and the inner-city uprisings that led J. Edgar Hoover (embodied here by Martin Sheen, liberal credentials buried beneath a shifting toplayer of latex) to proclaim the Black Panthers the new Public Enemy Number One. To this end, Hoover's FBI set a tail on Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), 21-year-old deputy chair of the Panthers' Chicago branch; the tail, sent undercover to infiltrate Hampton's teaching, was Bill O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a loping chancer uniquely dispositioned for the role of snake-in-the-grass, having just been arrested for impersonating an FBI officer. For King and co-writer Will Berson, O'Neal is a foot in the door, a means of getting some handle on Black Panther theory and practice. The Bureau, in the form of O'Neal's moderate-conservative handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), wanted to hear violently anti-American sentiment, plans to "sow hatred and inspire terror". What O'Neal actually heard, as he worked his way up through the organisation's chain-of-command, was something else entirely: plans to give every child in the neighbourhood a free breakfast, and set their parents up under a fairer operating system than capitalism. In the absence of any real juice, the pressure being exerted on O'Neal increased; everybody's best laid plans are soon going south. One advantage of the movies' past blindness around these stories is that they should still retain the power to surprise - even shock - an audience with how they unfold.
They also generate the kind of roles - meaty, nuanced, complex - for which Black performers on both sides of the Atlantic have been openly crying out. King's film has at its centre a nervy circling, a doomed pas de deux. O'Neal taps Stanfield's particular gift for playing twitchy, recessive weakness, but watch him grab at the pay-off Mitchell leaves for him on a restaurant table, or the way he goes overboard when regaling his Panther comrades with his desire to stomp out any fellow rats, and you can tell just how desperately this cat wants in. The real threat to O'Neal's life, it transpires, isn't the Bureau - who regard him as a means to an end - but the self-worth he discovers in the course of (even performatively) fighting the power: he becomes compromised in more ways than one, and gets in deeper by the day. (The punchline this life is headed towards, tucked away in the end credits after a clip of the real O'Neal, is one you have to gulp down and process on your own time.) As Hampton, Kaluuya is more barrel-chested than we've previously seen him, but his true force is rhetorical; he's as assured addressing an all-white crowd gathered under a Confederate flag - persuading them their struggles aren't so different from those of his own community - as he is consoling the bereaved mother of one Panther over tea and biscuits. This Hampton is building a coalition, consensus, and he's good at it - so good we wonder how long a needy outlier like O'Neal can resist. The romance he enters into with acolyte Deborah Johnson initially seems a little like a concession to a mainstream audience, though Dominique Fishback absolutely looks the late Sixties part, and is good in this secondary role. Yet Deborah's sudden pregnancy provides another means by which the film makes its squeeze felt. Here, as elsewhere, King addresses the tensions of this moment with a keen, pointed intelligence that precludes anything so softening as nostalgia or sentimentality. Better yet, he demonstrates a visual sense that further shows up Sorkin's TV-movie approach to this period. Noted cinematographer (and sometime Steve McQueen go-to) Sean Bobbitt frames this Chicago as a severely under-resourced warzone, a rat trap, around which revolutionary ideas might well resound, reverberate and take root, if only because any other way of living has to be better than this.
Judas and the Black Messiah will be available to rent via Prime Video from Thursday.