Director: Shaka King
Writer: Will Berson, Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen
Some time in the late Sixties in Chicago, a young man Bill O’Neal enters a bar posing as an FBI officer. He tries to issue an arrest so he can steal the keys to a car parked out front but the patrons quickly get wise to his ruse and make chase. Once arrested he is faced with up to five years in prison for impersonating an officer of the law. He’s given one option for having the incident scrubbed from his record. FBI special agent Roy Mitchell makes him an offer – agree to go undercover as an informant and snitch on Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
Prior to this movie, I was unfamiliar with Fred Hampton although his story is extraordinary. As a leader in the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther party he organized free meals and schooling for impoverished kids in his city. He was a talented orator and skilled negotiator. He was so confident and convincing with his vision that he would turn up unannounced at a meeting of white Southerners (in a meeting room adorned with the confederate flag no less) and after a tense stand off, he would have them join his alliance. Over time his “Rainbow Coalition” would include rival black gangs, Latinos, Puerto Ricans and the aforementioned Young Patriots. It’s no wonder that he drew the attention of the FBI. J Edgar Hoover warns Mitchell that unless something is done, Hampton could become a uniting national influence. A “black messiah” who would upset the status quo.
Initially, the FBI decides that killing him would make him a martryr. So instead they jail him for a couple of years on trumped up charges about stealing ice cream.
The most striking details about Judas and the Black Messiah that will stay with me are the facts about the life of Hampton himself. Played by Daniel Kaluuya, Hampton is a compelling figure. Powerful, charismatic, wise beyond his years. By casting a man over thirty to play the part of Hampton, the film actually underplays one of the most extraordinary details about Hampton – he only lived to the age of 21 so he accomplished most of his feats as a teenager. The only instance we really get to see a glimpse of Hampton’s actual age and how it might affect his behavior is in his relationship with fellow Black Panther party member Deborah Johnson. When they share a tender moment together, Hampton is momentarily lost for words – the only instance it happens in the entire film.
Bill O’Neal is an interesting character. Played by Lakeith Stanfield, scenes involving O’Neal range from moments with the Black Panthers where he seems progressively convinced by their cause, interactions with Mitchell who holds over his head the jail time he faces if he doesn’t continue to provide the FBI with information, and real life clips from an interview in the early Nineties that O’Neal gave to PBS on a documentary called Eyes On the Prize II. A day after the interview aired, which effectively outed him as the informant that lead to Hampton’s death, O’Neal took his own life.
To be honest, its hard to gather from the film what O’Neals true intentions were and director/writer Shaka King isn’t necessarily game to take a stab at his real motives. In the documentary footage, O’Neal says he looked at Mitchell as something of a mentor (which isn’t really reflected by anything else in the film) but paradoxically, he also tries to hold his ground by saying he was proud of being involved in Hampton’s movement. Surely you can’t have that both ways? He seems like a man who was internally conflicted about his allegiances ever since that night he tried to steal the car and eventually it lead to him taking his own life. Without fulling understanding his motives and true allegiances, I think Stanfield does excellent work in portraying him.
Judas and the Black Messiah ends with the same kind of heart-breaking injustice we read about in the papers about cops attacking ordinary black Americans to this very day. FBI agents raided his apartment at the crack of dawn after O’Neal drugged him the night before, rendering Hampton immobile. They fired 100 bullets to the Black Panther’s 1 (aimed at the roof). They murdered him in cold blood. This film is a fitting tribute to the legacy of Fred Hampton and a sad reminder of how little has changed since he began his struggle for social justice.