Director and co-screenwriter Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” takes an interesting look at the Black Panther Party and the BPP chapter leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Danie Kaluuya) who was assassinated by our government. The film is intense and often frustrating. because the more things change, you realize the painful truth and that is—for us—nothing has changed.
21-year-old activist Hampton didn’t live his life in fear. He didn’t hide behind hashtags and Twitter. Every time he shouted, “I am a revolutionary!” and the assembled crowd echoed it back, he cracked the earth and a seed of change slipped in. It was this power (“Where there are people, there is power”), then and now, that terrifies the racist establishment. The only people surprised that police brutality exists—and that, at America’s very foundation, there is a deep, seething hate for African American people and other Brown people—are white people. Those of us that suffer under the injustice of it all is too well-informed.
Black Lives Matter protests organized by young voices much like Chairman Hampton’s, in response to the murder of African American women and men by the very institutions sworn to protect and serve, is the result of one of the seeds that took root because of the Panthers. This is what made Hampton a target for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is why he was followed and murdered. If the Panther’s program wasn’t working it would not have been perceived as a threat.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” centers on William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who was the former Black Panther Party security captain; an inside man, who sabotaged this movement, acting as an undercover informant for FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons).
It’s been a long time (51 years) and according to Mitchell’s personnel file, the conspiracy was approved from the top-down. It could not have worked without the support of the Chicago police, and that approval was traced to FBI head Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). The screenplay is largely based on the candid interview given by O’Neal (1987) in the docu-series “Eyes on the Prize,” the reenactment of which opens King’s film.
One of the reasons, I think, that will make “Judas and the Black Messiah” a must-see and sweep upcoming nominations and acquire at least one Oscar is that it’s based on facts. And these facts are the foundation of our racial system.
Act one, scene one sets up COINTELPRO (a Hoover-sanctioned hit squad acting with unconstitutional impunity) so we can understand that it was Hoover’s goal to eradicate any political organization that he deemed dangerous by any means necessary.
The script which King co-wrote with Will Berson and Kenny and Keith Lucas does not shy away from showing the G-men and how they embrace their racism and fear of civil rights. Plemons’ character actually equates the Panthers with the Klan (“The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same”) and uses this to persuade O’Neal. Trapped, O’Neal was arrested for impersonating a federal agent and given a get-out-of-jail card—so to speak—if he infiltrated Hampton’s group. The year was 1969 and both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had both been murdered and therefore silenced. Feeling empowered, police forces in major cities increased their harassment of African American and Brown people. The Panthers swore to police the police. Feeling familiar?
“Where there are people, there is power.” In Chicago, Hampton had a vision to unite not just rival African American groups but also the Young Patriots (Southern white leftists) and the Young Lords (Puerto Ricans), calling it the Rainbow Coalition.
History is filled with facts about how colonizers won, they divided the people. Hampton understood their war cry (divide and conquer) so he strategized a re-direction of justified anger toward the system.
Hampton was painted as the enemy of the people and at Hoover’s insistence, they found any ridiculous, flimsy excuse to arrest him. After time in prison, he returns more outspoken and defiant.
In act two, it’s where Hampton is transformed into the civil rights “messiah” who could motivate crowds—part spiritual leader, part spoken-word poet—with his vision, demanding justice and being painted by the powers too dangerous to survive and taking the stance to suppress him at any cost.
You’ve heard the wise warnings about keeping an eye on those around you? “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Well O’Neal was so close he took down Hampton and eventually the movement.
The price? O’Neal was paid $300 to provide federal agents with drawing the floor plan of his West Side apartment and drugging him the night of the raid, hence the title of “Judas” is absolutely fitting. O’Neal later said that what he did wasn’t a “betrayal” in his mind. So brainwashed and wrapped in self-hatred, this misguided nuisance, O’Neal, said “I had no allegiance to the Panthers.”
Actor Stanfield gives O’Neal, the Judas-rat, some level of sympathy, but not enough that I think any viewer will care about his future. He’s deplorable, dull, and extremely stupid.
What I love about “Judas and the Black Messiah” is that we can hear Hampton’s words, including his suggestion to “Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction.” There isn’t a moment in this film that doesn’t make you metaphorically hold your breath. It just reminds you that nothing has changed and makes you ponder (gulp) will it ever?
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen.