Historical events are an endless source of inspiration. They populate our imagination, and our screens. They uncover, revisit, retell the past in the light of the most current representation of ourselves. Oftentime movies based on true events are our first point of entry into chapters of human history which would otherwise remain obscure to most.
Judas and the Black Messiah is one of those movies. It made its mission to lift the veil on the events leading to the death of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), Deputy Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and the role played by William ‘Bill’ O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), designated Judas and the chapter’s Security Captain.
The movie begins with shots of O’Neal as he prepares for the infamous 1989 Eyes of the Prize 2 interview. The man is visibly nervous, jittery and sweats profusely.
“Looking back on your activities in the late 60s, early 70s, what would you tell your son about what you did then?” he’s asked. The camera cuts before we can hear his answer, leaving his words in suspense. Movie Director Shaka King wants to make clear what ‘activities’ are being referred to.
Cue in old footage of Black Panther imagery setting up the tone of the movie with soundbites from figureheads of the movements – Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis – as a seal of authenticity. The Black Panther Party is more than the violent militia they’re painted to be. The Black Panther Party is about the people. The Black Panther Party is the revolution.
And because of that, they’re in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover’s (Martin Sheen) FBI and its tentacular Cointelpro operation. The head of the Bureau is single-mindedly set on squashing the Black liberation movement, thwarting any and all communist, new left coalition on American soil, but most importantly, preventing the rise of another “Black Messiah”.
To understand, Hampton’s meteoric rise comes at the heel of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.’s deaths in 1965 and 1968 respectively. Hampton is young and already incredibly charismatic. His work to create a Rainbow coalition hasn’t gone unnoticed. At barely 20, Hampton is public enemy number one and has a target on his back.
The Black Panther Party is more than the violent militia they’re painted to be. The Black Panther Party is about the people. The Black Panther Party is the revolution.
In 1968, William O’Neal is just 19 when he is strong-armed into infiltrating Hampton’s Black Panther chapter as a FBI informant. He is a petty thief with an already long criminal record. His options are limited: a lifetime in jail or freedom in exchange with cooperating with an agency obsessed with the Black radical threat. O’Neal chooses self-preservation.
From then on, we follow O’Neal as he’s tossed around between his Black Panther duties and reporting back to his FBI handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). We’ll remain silent on the typecasting of Plemons in duplicitous roles. He plays them too well.
But as O’Neal inserts himself into Hampton’s inner circle, the question we ask is how. On screen, O’Neal spends so little time with Hampton that it is difficult to justify his progression through the ranks. Was providing a car enough to grant all passes?
Who are O’Neal and Hampton?
If Judas and the Black Messiah does some things well, the visceral response it is supposed to elicit is dead on arrival. O’Neal is a cautionary tale for moral and political apathy. He is handpicked by Mitchell because he seems completely disconnected from the collective response to the deaths of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.; and when you’re busy trying to survive the American dream, it can seem foolish to spare a thought towards causes assumed to be already lost.
But what does O’Neal think when he joins the Panthers, works closely on their community programmes, witnesses the power of people coming together and realises the good they’re doing around them? Or yet again, what does O’Neal think of his actions in the aftermath of Hampton’s death? By the end of the movie, we’re none the wiser.
O’Neal is nothing more than a pawn – on screen and off. He is coerced into playing the FBI’s game but he is also a tool for Director Shaka King who creates a Manichean dichotomy leaving no space for nuances. He seems most true to himself when he meets with Mitchell, drinking fine alcohol, smoking cigars dangled in front of him or dining at fancy restaurants dressed in the latest fashion instead of the black uniform of the Panthers.
The directorial choice is clear – O’Neal is too morally corrupt to explore and it shows in Stanfield’s performance. The permanent twitchiness, the pleading eyes, the inappropriate body language feel more like moral cowardice than fear of being caught. O’Neal is so off, it is difficult to understand how anyone would trust him, particularly when the Panthers knew they were under the watchful eye of the FBI.
The directorial choice is clear – O’Neal is too morally corrupt to explore and it shows in Stanfield’s performance.
Kaluuya’s Hampton is also unconvincing. He is merely a background to O’Neal’s treason; a gimmicky revolutionary we know very little about. Hampton spends more time giving speeches and delivering punchlines than being a full fledged human being. If his beliefs are obvious to us, we know nothing of what animates the man as we quickly gloss over his outreach work to create the Rainbow coalition of Hoover’s nightmares. And what is there to say about the poorly written romance with girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback).
With Judas and the Black Messiah, the plot is in the title. There is no surprise and no requirement to be familiar with the story to know how it will end. The real challenge here was to create enough intimacy with the characters on screen to keep the momentum going until the dramatic resolution of this political tragedy. But intimacy surrenders to a robotic agenda.
Where is the questioning, the moral dilemma of betraying the cause for your own advancement to the benefit of white supremacy? Instead we have good versus evil, altruism versus selfishness, socialism versus capitalism. The movie wants us to care but doesn’t allow us to do so. At the end of its two-hour run, two men who changed history are still strangers to us.
The Black Panthers in a different light
Looking beyond the camera, we might find an answer. Produced by Shaka King, Charles D. King (Sorry to bother you) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Judas and the Black Messiah joins a flurry of movies with a political message co-opted by an industry hungry for clear cut heroes and nemeses and somehow still reckoning with the effects of the Hays code of its early beginnings.
Judas and the Black Messiah has its virtues. It has the merit of centring on the positive impact of the Black Panthers’ community activism – breakfast programmes for kids, education, free healthcare. The movie rightly corrects an image that has been overshadowed by their open warfare with the American government.
Where is the questioning, the moral dilemma of betraying the cause for your own advancement to the benefit of white supremacy?
For his service, O’Neal receives 300$ and the keys to a gas station to lift him out of the ‘struggle’. The movie cuts back to the Eyes on the Prize interview, this time with actual footage of O’Neal as he answers the question posed earlier:
“I think I’ll let your documentary put a cap on that story. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’d tell him, other than… I was part of the struggle. That’s the bottom line. I wasn’t one of those armchair revolutionaries. One of those people that wanna sit back now and judge the actions or inactions of people when they sit back on the sideline and did nothing. At least I had a point of view. I was dedicated. And then I had the courage to get out there and put it on the line, and I did. Um… I think I’ll let history speak for me.”
The interview aired on Martin Luther King day, 15th January 1990. O’Neal will take his own life that very night leaving his legacy to the judgement of history. But who are we to judge?