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Review: Kaluuya electrifies 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

The 'Get Out' star turns in an Oscar-worthy performance in this fiery political thriller, based on true events

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Daniel Kaluuya is a force of nature in "Judas and the Black Messiah," which should come as no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention. Since "Sicario" in 2015, the English actor has been on a serious hot streak, from "Get Out" to "Black Panther" to "Queen & Slim" to now "Judas." He's no longer a rising actor, he has risen. 

As '60s activist Fred Hampton, the "Black Messiah" to whom the title is referring, Kaluuya is a powerhouse, a revolutionary with the strength to move mountains with his words alone. He shouldn't just be in the Best Supporting Actor race, he should be leading it, as he inhabits Hampton's skin and brings him back to vivid, barking life.    

Daniel Kaluuya in "Judas and the Black Messiah."

"Judas" centers on the Feds' plot to take out Hampton, led by Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, part of the film's mini-"Get Out" reunion party), a car thief who turns FBI informant after he's busted boosting a car. Bill, who comes to earn his nickname "Wild Bill," infiltrates the Chicago Black Panther party and works his way up the ranks, willingly at first, though he's later conflicted about his role in taking down a powerful Black leader.

The great Jesse Plemons plays FBI agent Roy Mitchell, Bill's contact on the outside, who is smarmy and quietly controlling over Bill. Every time he wants out, Roy is there to reel him back in, and Plemons plays him with a creepy menace that never boils over but always simmers near the top of the pot.  

Co-writer and director Shaka King treats "Judas" as a kind of "Donnie Brasco" story, and keeps the action scintillating on a human level as well as a political one. A straightforward biopic on Hampton would not have had the same impact, as "Judas" works as a suspenseful thriller as well as a history lesson, with obvious parallels to today. It's an electrifying, poignant statement. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Judas and the Black Messiah'

GRADE: B+

Rated R: for violence and pervasive language

Running time: 125 minutes

In theaters and on HBO Max