Shaka King’s new historical drama Judas and the Black Messiah released in theaters as well as on HBO Max on Feb. 12. The powerful and tense true story follows William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) as he infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther chapter, delivering information about Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) to the deeply flawed FBI. King’s film is both uplifting and devastating as it reveals both the racist conditions/contradictions of 1960’s Chicago (and America) and the inspiring strength of those who fought back for freedom and liberation.
Bill O’Neal starts the film armed with a fake FBI badge, utilizing the fear of incarceration and police brutality to steal cars from other Black men. After getting caught during a botched theft, O’Neal is given two options: spend the next 5 years in jail or become an FBI informant, infiltrate the Black Panthers, and provide the intel needed to take down Fred Hampton, or as J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) calls him, the “Black Messiah.” Soon enough, O’Neal becomes involved with the party and sees that “These motherfuckers ain’t no terrorists.” O’Neal recognizes that Hampton is not a dangerous man looking for war, but a peaceful man born into a war, working to unite the marginalized peoples within Chicago to ignite change.
Here, O’Neal’s character perplexes viewers. Despite his seemingly growing loyalty toward Hampton and the Panthers, and the various improvements Hampton’s revolution could bring to his life, O’Neal still leaks information that assists the FBI in raiding Panther Headquarters, soiling plans of unity between oppressed peoples and, ultimately, killing Fred Hampton. O’Neal, from start to finish, rarely lets the audience into his mind. Getting into some very close calls with discovery and death, he also struggles between loving the thrill of snitching and hating himself for his lack of an honest identity. Without the Panthers or the FBI around, who the hell is he?
Stanfield does an amazing job playing the informant, having to (on a meta level) act within his role. That is, Stanfield successfully embodies the two-faced nature of King’s O’Neal. One face shows a confident and loyal Panther, fighting for freedom, liberation, and the people. The other face, the true face of O’Neal, shows a scared and selfish traitor, in way over his head, enjoying scraps of money and the adrenaline rush of working alongside the tyrannical white man. Stanfield switches between these visages flawlessly, skillfully intertwining anxiety and charm to keep his cool in tight situations before bursting apart at the seams.
Similarly, Kaluuya allows the role of Fred Hampton to truly wash over him, embracing a new gait alongside a prophetic and poetic flow filled with power and rhythm. A natural leader, King’s Hampton is a peaceful man who loves nothing more than igniting revolution, uniting his community and getting “high off the people!” His powerful activism and relentless fight towards free education, free healthcare and feeding hungry children quickly gain the audience’s respectful admiration. They also contrast sharply with the dangerous terrorist image of the Panthers painted by Hoover and the FBI within the film. Kaluuya provides viewers with chills in nearly all his scenes, each speech evoking especially deep feelings of strength and power, drawing out the revolutionary within all of us. Last week, Kaluuya also, very deservedly, was awarded with a Golden Globe for this role! Both he and Stanfield are two of the best actors to come out of the past 5 years, as evidenced by films such as 2017’s Get Out and 2018’s Sorry to Bother You.
Also, it is important to note King’s depiction of the police. They are racist in both public and private spaces, and cause most of the violent conflict within the film. Living in 2021, we often believe the days of racial violence and police brutality are far behind us. This movie, taking place only 60 years ago, and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor taking place less than one 1 year ago, paint a strikingly different picture. And King certainly leaves off the sugar coat. Hampton’s murder at the end of the film is one of the most tense and unnerving things I have ever watched. The police break into a home filled with Panthers at night, shooting entire rooms full of sleeping people into bloody heaps before searching out Hampton and shooting him in the head. They have zero remorse and execute him after spitting petty comments. King includes these gritty scenes for a reason. He wants us to understand the extreme danger of police brutality that still exists today.
Judas and the Black Messiah depicts more than just the conflict of the Black Panthers, more than just the life and murder of Fred Hampton, powerful as those topics are. The film shows us, through prophetic writing and visual stimulation, 1960’s police brutality, disparities in medical access, and oppression towards people of all colors. Getting deeper, the film shows the power behind racism that still plagues the US in similar ways today, and more importantly, the stronger power that can be found when people stand together and demand change. King’s message within Judas and the Black Messiah is clear: The people hold the power, and the people should always do more for their communities!
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is available to stream on HBO Max.
By Erik Mathews