This film is inspired by true events. Similarly, to Sam Pollard’s ‘MLK/FBI’ out earlier this year, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ shows the world how afraid of powerful black men J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was. Both films come out and say that he feared a Black Messiah and that the number of people Black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and the focus of this film, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, could gather with one assembly alone, terrified him.
Playing Hoover is Martin Sheen, who stands on stage early in the movie, rallying his men. He tells them to watch their every move, convincing his agents that black men were more dangerous to the American way of life than even the Russians and that they needed to be stopped.
It’s Chicago, Illinois, and the year is 1968. Loud, off-putting music screeches through the speakers, putting you on edge—an excellent decision that happens throughout.
Not long after that moment, in a conversation between two men, an FBI agent and a thief, a clear message is sent to the audience that a badge is more frightening to a black man than a gun. Against a gun, a man stands a chance. With a badge, the person wielding it has a whole army behind him. The thief is also the Judas in the film. His name is Bill O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield. The FBI’s agent is Roy Mitchell, played by Jesse Plemons.
Roy catches O’Neal stealing a car, and instead of taking O’Neal in, for which he’d face years in prison, Roy decides to use him. O’Neal is to worm his way into a good position in the Black Panther Party and get close to their beloved Chairman Fred Hampton, played by the charismatic, innocent-faced Daniel Kaluuya. O’Neal then must directly feed Roy information of what the group is planning and when. And Kaluuya brings it with every speech and every rally, appealing to all types, even discounted and angry whites.
Interestingly, as the film continues, it’s harder for O’Neal to do his job. He not only asks for more compensation, for which there is plenty but the more he witnesses and listens to his new leader, the more he makes demands from the FBI that he hopes will get him out of the agreement altogether. He hears what the Chairman is asking for and finds himself no longer just an informant but a vital ingredient of the desired outcome.
Hampton says that it’s Democracy when the white man asks for Housing, Justice, Peace, Life, Liberty, and Happiness for all. But when the poor ask for the same thing, it’s suddenly labeled Socialism. O’Neal hears this and is confused suddenly about what he believes and where he stands. This is shown not through the dialogue Stanfield delivers but through his expressions. It’s moments such as these that make you see the brilliance of director Shaka King’s casting choices. There are several moments when O’Neal fears for Hampton and many where he fears for himself, but as Hampton’s words sink in, O’Neal’s respect for the movement does, too. He is put in a terrible position and is desperate for a way out. It begs one to consider strongly who the real criminal after all.
As you watch the film unfold, many emotions will be drawn from you. If you hadn’t heard of Fred Hampton, his story being told now is essential for many reasons. We can’t pretend this wasn’t a part of our history or that racism doesn’t still exist in this country. Before we can heal, we must finally face our ugly past… and sadly, it seems our present. It’s through films like this, having the courage to bring the subject to the forefront, that we can witness what has been hiding for so long, that we take those first steps.
There are several clips of the real people at the end of the film and during the credits and update on Hampton’s family that you won’t want to miss.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Director: Shaka King
Writers: Will Berson, Shaka King
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Lil Rey Howery, and Martin Sheen
Running Time: 2h 6m
Genres: Biography, Drama, History