Judas & the Black Messiah: A Conflicting Tale for the Ages

Director: Shaka King
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, and Dominique Fishback
Written by: Keith and Kenny Lucas
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt

[Fred Hampton] could sell salt to a slug.” – William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield)

…That was a notion that convinced the FBI to deem Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, a radical threat in 1969. His ability to persuade the public to empower themselves inspired a movement where “power to the people” wasn’t just a thought. It was a state of being. It was Hampton’s assembly call to people of all races and backgrounds to revolutionize themselves that elevated the FBI’s decision to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party.

Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah has been a long time coming. The Lucas brothers began on the development back in 2013-2014. According to THR, after studying Fred Hampton and The Black Panther Party, they eventually invited Shaka King to direct this passion project. After learning of the true story behind Hampton’s demise, Shaka King went on to reveal that the true story of Hampton and FBI informant O’Neal ‘knocked him on his ass’ – something he did not shy away from doing to audiences of this feature since its premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. And it’s exactly why this tale is a riveting and powerful recount about legacy and conspiracy that is at times conflicting. But it’s simply a must-watch for everyone.

After both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had been assassinated, communities around the United States of America sought after leaders that would uphold the Black power mindset as well as the progression of civil rights issues. For Black people, that meant finding ways to feed children in under resourced neighborhoods or protecting people from police brutality. For the FBI, that meant something else entirely. In Judas and the Black Messiah, director King offers some intel regarding the FBI’s role in the abominable acts during that time. Under the FBI’s COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program), a series of covert and illegal projects covering surveillance, infiltration, and discrediting were used as tactics to completely prevent anyone from stepping into the role of a “Black Messiah.” But Fred Hampton didn’t step into this role. He just was. And that is what terrified the FBI most.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

As with any “based on a true story” feat, it is important to get things right. For a figure like Fred Hampton, it’s not only important to showcase accuracy, but it’s essential that the impact of his legacy, and the people/obstacles that stood against him at every angle be showcased. King masters these important details up to a point, which left me utterly conflicted on how I was supposed to feel after the film’s ending.

Most of this is due to how the narrative is shaped around William O’Neal’s (played by Lakeith Stanfield) direct involvement with Hampton’s inevitable demise. He was the glue to the FBI’s conspiracy puzzle, the Judas to Chicago’s Black Messiah. And the feature heavily focuses in on this as it steamrolls past the reason why he must be the informant in the first place. O’Neal had been a career criminal practically all his life until he was caught by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons). It was either jail or becoming an informant for O’Neal – a deal the FBI knew was too good to pass up. These are the moments I wish the story refined a little more. Because it’s easy to take an external view at this situation and think Lakeith Stanfield’s O’Neal is the bad guy. But what the film just scratches the surface on is what really needed emphasis; and it’s the fact that he’s only the ‘bad guy’ because the FBI dealt him cards that were impossible to refuse. They were masterful at targeting Black people with O’Neal’s background and who had felt impartial to the assassinations of Black leaders. This is not to say that William deserves all the sympathy in this particular recount, but extended rationale and elaboration would have gone a long way especially since this was a popular tactic the FBI used to get Black people to go against other Black people during that time.

That isn’t the only conflicting thing about King’s feature, however. I needed more time dedicated to unfolding the heinous acts by the FBI. COINTELPRO was a very real, very ugly program the US government established to silence and destroy the livelihood of Black people. King’s presentation of this was nicely presented with style- similar to Scorsese’s The Departed, which also happened to be a selling point for Judas. It somewhat sugarcoats how aggressive the FBI was in their involvement with assassinations like Hampton’s. But truth be told, this was a mission that had been practiced before and would be used for other Black Panther leaders in the future. So why wasn’t this showcased? They are the very reason for the existence of Judas in Judas and the Black Messiah. And for a country that is still facing similar problems regarding race, police brutality, and the invalidation of Black leaders and their policies today, we need the truth. Because only it will set us free.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

For every conflicting element in Judas, there certainly were moments and aspects of King’s feature that worked beautifully on screen. One of these is the portrayal of O’Neal and Hampton by Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, respectfully. With a charismatic and calming presence on screen, Kaluuya navigates life as Chairman with grace, affecting intensity, and magnetic appeal. He certainly steals every scene he’s in, which I imagine is exactly how it felt to be in Fred Hampton’s presence. Lakeith Stanfield’s delivery of O’Neal was more subtle, but it perfectly matched his role as an informant. There’s a moment towards the film’s end where the character comes to the realization that his actions have dire consequences. In this one scene, Stanfield solidified his place as one of the most powerful actors of his generation.

When people watch Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, there’s no doubt in my mind that most will love the film and some will not believe it. Maybe a small group of people will finish it with feelings as conflicted as mine. But at the end of the day, this is a story that needs to be told in the way that it was told. It’s a story through which audiences can get an inside glimpse of how the FBI was rampant on their relentless pursuit of Black leaders even though they weren’t actually threats. It’s an experience where audiences can make the connection that we, as the United States of America, are still struggling with how to give power to its people without backlash from the government itself. Because without these sentiments or these stories that shed light into our ugly history and the beautiful legacies left behind, how can we ever begin to heal? In the words of Kaluuya’s Hampton, America IS on fire right now. “And until that fire is extinguished, don’t nothing else mean a damn thing. Imagine what we could accomplish together. We can heal this whole city“…

We can heal this whole country.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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