by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 97% Certified Fresh
PLOT: In the late ‘60s, William O’Neal, offered a plea deal by the FBI, infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers to gather intelligence on party Chairman Fred Hampton.
By the time it was over, Judas and the Black Messiah made me think of that scene in Psycho (1960) where Norman is cleaning up after his mother and the car starts to sink in the swamp and then stops…and Norman gets nervous. At that moment, I started rooting for Norman, getting in his headspace: “C’mon, car, sink.” I was empathizing with the bad guy. Neat trick.
That’s how I felt during Judas and the Black Messiah. Instinctively, I know I’m supposed to be rooting for one character, but the movie empathizes with the “villain” character so well that I found myself rooting for him, too.
In the late 1960s, Fred Hampton’s star was on the rise in the black community. As portrayed in a sensational performance by Daniel Kaluuya, Hampton is a fiery, charismatic, passionate public speaker who publicly advocates armed patrols of Black Panthers in black neighborhoods to keep an eye out for harassment from white cops. When he is made Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, the FBI takes an interest. Well…Hoover takes an interest, which pretty much means the FBI followed suit regardless.
Meanwhile, a petty thief named Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is arrested by the FBI, who gives him a choice: serve a 5-year stretch for impersonating an FBI officer, or…go undercover into Fred Hampton’s Black Panther chapter and bring out good intel that will help them arrest Hampton. O’Neal agrees, and what follows is an exercise in classic cinematic storytelling and misdirection, done up with glossy modern cinematography that looks like the best movie Oliver Stone never made.
(…actually, “misdirection” is not the right word. I’m not sure what the right word is. I’ll explain.)
Fred Hampton is clearly meant to be the hero of the film. Hoover even refers to Hampton as a “messiah” of the black movement. This all takes place a few years after both Dr. King and Malcolm X had been assassinated. (If things had turned out differently, Fred Hampton’s name would be synonymous with King and Malcolm X, but it’s not, and based on this movie, that seems distinctly unfortunate and unfair.) He boldly walks into a local meeting of white supremacists and, incredibly, turns them around to his way of thinking, using a brilliant metaphor of America as a house on fire. If that moment is not based on fact, it should be.
So, if Hampton is the hero, then O’Neal is clearly meant to be the villain. Hampton is the messiah of the title, so O’Neal is Judas, the traitor, the informer. As a direct result of his intel [SPOILER ALERT], the FBI makes several arrests, including Hampton himself, and eventually initiates a raid during which Hampton is killed in his bed with his pregnant wife in the next room. (This is all a matter of public record, though it’s interesting that it took this movie to really make me aware of it.)
But it’s easy to make a movie with a two-dimensional villain. Judas and the Black Messiah does something much more difficult. It asks us to empathize with both Hampton AND O’Neal. We see the conflict in O’Neal’s face when Hampton promotes him to chief of security for their chapter. We see O’Neal’s fear when he is recognized by a member of a local gang. We see how few choices he really has in his various meetings with his FBI handler (Jesse Plemons), who constantly reminds him that, if he runs, they will find him and put him in jail. Hampton says numerous times in the film that if he were to die for the cause, it would be a life well spent. O’Neal has no such ideals. I’d go as far to say that, if that were me in O’Neal’s shoes, I might do the same thing to stay out of jail. I know my limits.
So, the entire film, I was pulled back and forth between admiration for Hampton and his cause and feeling anger towards O’Neal; and feeling terribly sad for O’Neal and what he’s essentially being forced to do by the FBI. In other films depicting the Jesus story, I felt no such sympathy for the Judas character. Director Shaka King accomplishes what so many other films do not: total alignment with one viewpoint while also demonstrating that not everything is so – forgive me – black and white.
Frankly, for me, the movie is worth watching just for the closing epilogue alone. We get a glimpse of the real Bill O’Neal being interviewed for a real PBS documentary in 1989, and he is asked what he might tell his son about his role in the events surrounding Fred Hampton’s death. His answer feels like something he’s rehearsed and said all his life. And then there’s a closing subtitle…and it’s devastating.
I feel like there is more I could say, but it would involve getting into much more detail about several plot points, and I would prefer to leave them for the viewer to discover on their own. Judas and the Black Messiah is worthy enough to stand with Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) as one of the best films ever made about the black experience in America.