Here is another socially and culturally relevant film that shines a spotlight on a recent time in our history that we all should be aware of.
Judas and the Black Messiah is the true story of a disciple’s betrayal; in this case, Judas is William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), and the Messiah is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Fred Hampton was the Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and one of the most notorious figures in the civil rights movement of the late ‘60s. He was a leader in the fight for Human rights and a prolific community organizer, attempting to make life better for Black Americans, minorities, and poor people. Fred Hampton believed that uniting with other race groups was crucial for the movement to succeed. He also started things still instituted today, like the Free Breakfast program. Feeding the poor earned him a Folk hero status in the community. This film, however, only covers a short period of his life, focusing primarily on Fred Hampton’s last days alive.
Bill O’Neal was a petty criminal caught by the police for impersonating an FBI agent. He was coerced into helping the FBI to keep tabs on Fred Hampton’s activities and to infiltrate the Black Panthers as an informer for the government. O’Neal eventually becomes close to Fred Hampton and has to choose between his freedom and betraying his friend.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed that Fred Hampton could unite a coalition of oppressed minorities into working together towards one unified goal. Hoover saw this potential union as an inherent threat to the National Security of the United States; thus, declaring war on the Black Panthers and stopping Hampton at all costs became one of the top priorities for the FBI under Hoover.
The performances alone make this movie a must-watch. Daniel Kaluuya transforms completely into Fred Hampton; he delivers a powerful performance. He captures the complexities and magnitude of this real-life character convincingly. We get to see how charismatic Hampton was in public and how reserved and measured he seemed in private life.
However, the narrative centers mostly around William O’Neill. And how he was equally a victim of the system. We see how he was coerced into becoming a reluctant informant. This character’s inner conflict and the constant struggle between opposing allegiances are at the center of this story. O’Neill is pulled in many different directions, which is the central idea of all undercover stories; A character that goes into a world, and then the character becomes a part of said world. Lakeith Stanfield is excellent here — He establishes a strong physical performance, where the facial gestures anchor most of the core emotions of Bill O’Neill.
The relationship between Fred Hampton and his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), is exceptionally depicted. Their love story was complex, and it was superbly dramatized. Dominique Fishback has been on my radar ever since I saw her in the outstanding HBO series the Deuce. She is fantastic here.
Kudos to director Shaka King. I dig everything about this film — how it was shot, the dialogue, and the acting. The shootout and the raid scene were pretty intense and well-executed. My only issue is that we don’t get a real sense of how young Fred Hampton was when he was murdered. Fred Hampton was just a kid, barely 21, and Bill O’Neill was 17 when all of this went down in 1969. I feel that the movie needed to emphasize this fact better.
Nevertheless, Judas and the Black Messiah is a bold and thought-provoking film. It is not one of those movies that romanticize the FBI as the good guys vs. the bad guys while completely ignoring their dark history and shady tactics, especially during its early years under Hoover. The fact is that Fred Hampton was murdered by his own government, executed in his own home. There is solid historical value here — We get to see how the FBI used shady and perverse tactics to hold people like O’Neill under their control in their ruthless pursuit of Black Panthers, minority revolutionaries, and anyone who displayed any progressive or radical ideologies. This film unapologetically exposes the dark history of the FBI brilliantly.
There is a direct connection between Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Both films have been nominated for Academy Awards, and both movies tackled similar and relevant issues. Both stories parallel each other, and both stories are centered around government oppression, corruption, Police brutality, freedom, human rights, and social-economic issues. Their significance cannot be understated.
Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿
Judas and the Black Messiah (2020).