Judas and the Black Messiah is a perfectly fine film about Fred Hampton, a man who deserves much better than a perfectly fine film. If you haven't heard of Hampton, ah! such a marvelous figure you have in front of you, and truth be told, as a starting point - only as starting point, mind you, certainly not as the whole story - Judas is a decent enough way to sketch out some of the most important facts in his life. An even better way would be to watch the ferocious 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton, which shows the actual man in the midst of his politically incendiary work - I only rarely like to play the "I, the critic, am using my authority to tell you, the reader, exactly what to do" card, but if this review only convinces you of one thing, it's that you should at the very least watch The Murder of Fred Hampton in addition to Judas and the Black Messiah, if not instead of it. It is a dangerous, tangibly fraught piece of cinema, one that had specific, active real-world impact. And real-world impact is something that films very infrequently manage to achieve, no matter what the producers of message movie Oscarbait (like this film, not to put too fine a point on it) might want.

Anyway, I have already cheated a little bit. "A perfectly fine film about Fred Hampton", I said, but Judas and the Black Messiah is only incidentally and secondarily about Hampton at all. Mostly it is exactly what the title suggests, primarily about Judas - William O'Neal, actually, played here by LaKeith Stanfield. O'Neal was a small-time criminal who got tapped by the FBI to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, a chapter of special interest to the government on account of Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya. Hampton all of 20 years old when he rose to prominence as a uniquely skilled negotiator and rhetorician, a rising star in the BPP with a transformative vision for uniting all the warring factions of the radical left and the multiracial working class. J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) took a personal interest in shutting him down, arranging to have the Chicago field office run O'Neal as a spy; O'Neal quickly rose through the BPP ranks, becoming Hampton's personal bodyguard.

Now, that's a fine little bit of history, but it's not really a story as such, and this is one of the problems Judas runs into: nothing "happens" in it for most of its running time. The script is ultimately credited to Shaka King (who also directs, without much distinction) and Will Berson, from a story by brothers Keith and Kenneth Lucas, and there's at least an entire level of development ignored there; either way, it has a lot of contributing voices, and like many films with several writing credits, it ends up feeling a bit mushy when it comes down to have a single cohesive viewpoint. The bulk of the film's unhurried 126 minutes are scenes of Hampton's activism, which are almost entirely free of narrative content, cross-cut with scenes of O'Neal and his FBI handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), in which O'Neal grows more despairing and nervous and guilt-wracked with every single meeting. Until the FBI puts into motion its plan to assassinate Hampton, which occurs around two-thirds or three-quarters of the way in, there's no momentum at all, just more or less shapeless snapshots of Hampton giving speeches and having arguments about strategy. Oh, and spoiler alert for reality, I guess, if you didn't get what the title Judas and the Black Messiah was in reference to.

The film is therefore built around a tension that it never resolves, in part because it doesn't seem to notice it's there: all the dramatic movement is built around O'Neal, who thus becomes our protagonist almost by default (Stanfield also has the most screen time), but much of the running time is based on watching Hampton be a brilliant leader of men, in scenes that run in parallel to the actual narrative, but generally don't intersect with it. We end up kind of getting too little of both figures, as result: Hampton gets all the personality, O'Neal gets all the action.

The other tension is one the film won't notice, being as it's a major studio production with dreams of some Oscar nominations and all: it refuses to actually look straight at Fred Hampton. Not just because he's not the main character, because as I said, the film itself seems a bit confused on that point, and very willing to spend minutes at a time staring in rapt awe at his rhetorical skills and inspirational leadership. But when it comes down to portraying what made him such an attractive, dangerous figure, the film completely punts. For the thing that made him attractive and dangerous was, after all, that he was an outspoken, unapologetic socialist, possibly the most full-throated American socialist to come along in all the years after World War II. It's literally impossible to completely blur that out, and almost the very first thing in the film is the audio of Hampton's most famous speech, on the need for working class solidarity across racial lines, with the pointed declaration, "you don’t fight capitalism with black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism". But that is, unless I blanked out completely, the only time the S-word is said aloud in the entire movie. And once you have made the choice to sand off that particular edge of Hampton's revolutionary program, there's very little left of substance. So the film's vision of the character is basically just a generic passionate idealist, righteously declaring that bad things are bad and good things are better, and not really offering any concrete strategy for a specific future, but just a kind of fuzzy "resist the baddies" attitude. This is unfair to Hampton, and it's bad for the drama, since the film's incarnation of the character never comes across as the radical firebrand the plot needs him to be. He's just a nondescript force for inspiration.

There's still enough here that works that it's impossible to write off Judas and the Black Messiah as just neutered bourgeois-friendly radical chic, though. I mean, it certainly is bourgeois-friendly radical chic, but in the context of a highly watchable movie. For one, it nails the look of its 1969 setting in the costumes designed by Charlese Antoinette Jones and the production design by Sam Lisenco (it fumbles the lighting, a bit; cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, a regular collaborator of Steve McQueen's, is obviously hungry to do some Gordon Willis-style shadows, but the digital camera he's using defeats him in this mission, and the color grading feels a little smeary and coppery). For another, better thing, Kaluuya and Stanfield are up to some tremendous work, at the front of a very strong cast - I have not mentioned Dominique Fishback, as Hampton's girlfriend Deborah Johnson, but she brings considerable gravity and emotional pull to a role that hasn't been written to be too much  - and it's near-peak work for both actors. This despite the both of them being frankly miscast: Hampton was 21 when he died, O'Neal a year younger, and the two actors are years older. Kaluuya is all of ten years older than Hampton, and he certainly doesn't look any younger than his 31 years. This is not incidental: the sheer fact of Hampton's youth is a crucial part of his story, and he simply doesn't read as young.

Still, for somebody who had no business playing the role, Kaluuya is extraordinary, mimicking Hampton's cadences while adding some of his own, imbuing the role with sweeping charisma and casual, likable authority. He's entirely easy to believe as a quick thinker and passionate speaker, a wary strategist, and a lover of humanity. While Kaluuya might not look the part, he has figured out every single facet of how a true believe in the revolution thinks and acts and reacts, and his wide range of emotions, both expressed and clamped down, are exhilarating. And Stanfield goes toe-to-toe with him, capturing the essence of how the film's O'Neal (who isn't quite the O'Neal of our real world) is gripped with ever-increasing fear, either at being found out by the Panthers, or at being obliged to make a choice between them and the FBI. The film's best moment, in fact, isn't about the world of radical politics at all, but a tight little suspense scene in which O'Neal's bluff is called and he has to hot wire a car, which Stanfield turns into a series of indignant little shouts of irritated disbelief that anybody would doubt that he could do it, if he wanted to, increasingly failing to cover up a sudden flash of blind panic.

Between themselves, the two leads make the best argument for why Judas and the Black Messiah is still worth seeing, despite its deep ambivalence about its subject, and how to structure itself as a narrative, and just how much it believes in the material ramifications of revolution, rather than the free respectability of mouthing support for a hollow idea of "revolution". This is certainly never anything other than studio-financed awards bait, a biopic that does very little to unsettle the standard rhythms of the form, except insofar as it awkwardly runs two different biographies in tandem. It's not the worst awards bait, nor the worst biopic. As I said, it never drops below watchable. But really, if you're going to treat Fred Hampton right, should it be watchable? The film should feel like a confrontation, a challenge to the audience, aesthetically and narratively; this is neither. But it's fine, and fine is, considering what the project is, probably the absolute best we could hope for.