The following review contains spoilers, and it is advised that you watch Judas and The Black Messiah before reading on. (I mean is it really spoilers or is it just history?)
This fantastic feature tells the story of Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, the Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party through the lens of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the FBI informant who infiltrated the group and eventually betrayed him.
I loved this storytelling style, kudos to director and co-writer Shaka King. Very quickly you understand the meaning of the film title, why it was chosen and how it indicates the way the story will unfold. We start with the perceived threat of a ‘Black Messiah’ from the racist federal governors, who are obsessed with stifling any potential of electrifying and unifying the Black nationalist movement.
By positioning Fred Hampton as the ‘Black Messiah’ we understand the relationship and ultimate betrayal of O’Neal’s role operating as the story’s Judas. This metaphor deifies Hampton, likening him to a Jesus-esque saviour (in the least blasphemous way possible). It’s interesting to me that the FBI wanted to avoid making a celebrity of activists by imprisoning them and thought killing them would solve the issue. It should have been clear to anyone with half a brain that killing an influential figure with a mass following would only serve to deify and make a martyr of their legacy. They pretty much foreshadowed it by affixing the label of Black Messiah to Hampton, and then, like Jesus, crucifying him. In the words of the late Chairman Fred, you can kill a revolutionary, but you cannot kill the revolution.
The story is driven by themes of community, socialism and revolution. It also shines a light on the work of the Black Panther Party and the ways in which they served their community and made positive impacts.
The film frames the ideologies of communism against capitalism, through the figures of Hampton and O’Neal, and the things that drive each of them. Hampton strives for communal freedom, whereas O’Neal acts for his own individual freedom.
Watching the downfall of O’Neal made me think of something Kaluuya called the danger of apathy and of self-preservation. The selfishness of individualism at the expense of communal progress. O’Neal illustrates the dangers of ‘not having an opinion’ and how being uninformed makes you ripe for being a tool of the oppressor. Don’t let the devil use you! Hampton’s selflessness was his strength because it meant he couldn’t be bought or used by the FBI in exchange for his own personal advancement. The film achieves a layered moral subtext by getting viewers to question their own moral code, and what the price is to go against the greater good in preservation of self.
I cannot get over how RECENT this all was. Hampton’s fiancée is still alive, his son is the current Chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs (BPPC), made up of descendants of Black Panthers. I cannot get over how YOUNG Fred Hampton was, how young O’Neal was and how that changed the severity of my contempt for him. It’s easy to direct the blame and condemnation towards O’Neal but ultimately, he was merely a pawn in the greater white establishment. It is their evil that cannot be overlooked. Hampton and O’Neal were literally teenagers, and when I think of everything Hampton achieved in his youth, I can only imagine the greatness he could’ve gone on to create had his life not been stolen from him.
Daniel Kaluuya who won an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe concurrently for this role, dazzles as Fred Hampton. His interpretation of Hampton was so scarily accurate. He really captivated the essence of the revolutionary and got that Chicago accent and Hampton’s rhythmic style of speaking on point.
Lakeith Stanfield portrayed inner turmoil so deftly, you could see how O’Neal’s actions began to haunt him as the story unfolds. One thing Lakeith Stanfield is gonna give you is those concerned eyes. I thought the O’Neal dream sequence and how it foreshadowed future true-life events was extremely effective and thought-provoking. It perfectly captures how he is not even sure where his true allegiances lie anymore at that moment. Both versions of himself are in costume; the gun wielding O’Neal dressed in his police impersonation get-up and the other O’Neal is dressed as a member of the BPP. From this we see that O’Neal doesn’t really know who he is or what he stands for. This short scene captures the confusion, paranoia, self-doubt and fear that O’Neal would have been experiencing at the time.
I don’t have many faults for this film to be honest. It would have been good to see a little more of the women’s input in the activism of the BPP. I’m aware that this story was focussed mainly on Hampton and O’Neal but it was set in a time where 40-70% of BPP members were women. It would have been nice to see more of their presence and influence.
I also think the evilness of J. Edgar Hoover and his illegal COINTELPRO program needed real examining. Its arguable that the focus of the film rightfully remained on Hampton, but to tell the story through the experience of the FBI informant recruited under COINTELPRO warrants a deeper exposure of the full extent of its heinous acts. Hoover is hopefully being whipped by the flames of hell for all eternity.
Judas and the Black Messiah is available to watch on streaming sites now.