The Pitch: The early morning of December 4th, 1969 served as an exclamation point for this country’s most tumultuous decade. The assassinations of Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X; became jarring reminders that the virtues of morality, peace, and equality would never supersede the ideology that the United States was built on – racism. At 21 years old, Fred Hampton’s life may have been cut short, but his legacy continues to live on. Directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah is not only a film about the political killing of one of the movement’s most promising figures, but an exploration of the inner turmoil plaguing the man who set him up – and the mindset of many others like him.
In a powerful montage, the film opens with footage focused on quotes and speeches from America’s Black leaders during the Civil Rights era. Written masterfully by Will Berson, along with Keith and Kenny Lucas, it sets the tone for the movie in a variety of ways. By humanizing the Black Panther Party (BPP), a political organization that the media demonized, and the government ultimately destroyed, the film allows the viewer to observe the film objectively and develop his/her own opinion of what the BPP represented. Although they were created out of necessity, their presence alarmed FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), thus resulting in an intricate and deceptive plot to take down the chairman of its Illinois chapter.
Friend or Foe? The primary antagonist of Judas and the Black Messiah remains unclear, even until its ending. Collectively, the FBI, agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), and the film’s “Judas,” William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), all play an integral part in the murder of the “Black Messiah,” as proclaimed by Sheen’s Hoover. It’s Stanfield’s O’Neal who blurs the line between traitorous and tragic, and at times becomes a sympathetic figure whose decisions ultimately seem to land in the hands of everyone but his own.
As we learn, O’Neal’s journey of betrayal began with him being arrested on charges of impersonating a police officer, which leads to Mitchell proposing an ultimatum: infiltrate the Panthers or go to jail. He takes the deal, and as we witness throughout the film, O’Neal’s moral compass is tested … and yet ultimately fails both him and his community. Eventually, O’Neal rises to the rank of security captain with the BPP, but more importantly, he becomes a trusted member of Hampton’s inner circle.
There are situations when O’Neal’s true intentions are almost uncovered by the BPP. These moments are both tense and suspenseful, even though O’Neal’s character is despised. This dichotomy between William and the film’s viewer is complicated, but they share many parallels both good and bad. In fact, during the film’s virtual summit last week, Stanfield elaborated on his role, stating: “Even though we try to fight it, more people will identify with William O’Neal than they would Fred Hampton.”
I Am, A Revolutionary: The soul of Judas and the Black Messiah thrives with Daniel Kaluuya’s portrayal of Fred Hampton. Young, charismatic, and inspirational, the Panther’s deputy chairman represented the change that America needed to see, whether it liked it or not. His speeches were captivating, and the melodic stanza in his voice was reminiscent of some of the great African-American orators of that time. Although O’Neal’s focus was to sabotage his movement, parts of him also admired Hampton — admiration not only for the man, but for the morals he stood for. Hampton’s message of revolution in a nation comfortable with turning a blind eye to the issues of racism was seen as dangerous, and symbolized gasoline towards a social climate on the verge of exploding. Kaluuya’s depiction of Hampton embodies a forceful energy fueled by compassion. At its core, his life’s work was one of unwavering dedication, which in turn made the supporters of the movement people of strict devotion.
When Tragedy Strikes: It’s important to note why Fred Hampton was assassinated. During an intense conversation with O’Neal, Mitchell states that the KKK and the Black Panther Party are “one in the same.” Of course, it was this blissful ignorance that served as the vehicle for Hoover’s COINTELPRO to not only execute Hampton, but harass, denigrate and perform many acts of negativity towards prominent Black leaders (as well as others who sat on the side of progression). While Mitchell’s statement is short-sighted, it was correct in the fact that both of these movements were reactionary. One was created to maintain the status and superiority of one race, while the other was birthed to combat and eradicate the hate that the other promoted.
As far as the FBI was concerned, Hampton’s killing signified a shift in the balance of power on the social front. To the communities of Chicago’s inner city, however, the death of their shining prince was a near-fatal blow to its racial progression – at least in the foreseeable future. Hampton represented many things to different people. To his party, he was a leader and a positive reminder of a world ready to accept change. To Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), he was a lover, teacher, and life partner. On December 4th of ’69, the connection between Hampton and Johnson may have ended in the physical sense, but it strengthened their emotional bond and allowed her to carry on not only his legacy, but also his child.
One of the empowering notions of Judas and the Black Messiah is how the film reveals the power that a Black man wields, as well as the inescapable void that is left when he ceases to exist. The United States has had a history of violence and oppression towards people of color, and more specifically the African-American male. To the establishment, Fred Hampton was a frightening symbol of the intellect, perseverance, and visceral masculinity that the Black man possessed. The family dynamic is built upon the patriarchal figure’s role of leadership and protection. So, to take Hampton away from the people he fought so hard to liberate, would have the same crippling effect as when the black male is removed from the household.
The Verdict: There are many relationships present in Judas and the Black Messiah; the one between Fred Hampton and William O’Neal represents the duality of the human spirit. Hampton was confident, self-aware and knew the man he wanted to ultimately become. Tragic, sure, but he was in full acceptance of his fate and was proud to be granted the opportunity to be martyred for his people. O’Neal may have outlived his counterpart, but he sold his soul in the process.
That idea coalesces in the final moments of Judas and the Black Messiah, when the film concludes with a clip from the PBS documentary, Eyes On The Prize II, in which the real O’Neal speaks on his tenure as an informant for the FBI. It shows a man still unsure of his place in the world, without ever grasping the meaning of right or wrong. By now, both Hampton and O’Neal are no longer on this earth; but while one gave life everything he could, the other never truly lived at all.
Shaka King’s historical drama highlights a vital and oft-overlooked part of American history. The legacy of the Black Panthers as community providers is often overlooked among the myriad of arrests, killings, protests, and the like. The narrative of institutional prejudice is something that plagues the nation, still. Filled with Oscar-worthy performances, Judas and the Black Messiah puts a nostalgic lens on a modern-day struggle.
Where’s It Streaming? Judas and the Black Messiah is available now via HBO Max.