Like many films based on actual events, audiences can see it through the eyes of many lenses: a biopic, historical context, universal themes, etc. The fantastic thing about Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is that it is seemingly very self-aware of that ability and makes excellent use of it. To say it is a biopic of Fred Hampton, while that would be powerful enough on its own, does a disservice to William O’Neal’s story, and that is who this is ultimately structured around. And just by doing that, the movie immediately adds the complexity of personal ethics and ideals to a story where one might not think they would even be an issue when it’s as clear as the oppressed standing up to the oppressor.
O’Neal, wonderfully played by LaKeith Stanfield, first appears on screen as a thief who attempts to steal a car by impersonating an officer. Rather than going to jail, he infiltrates the Black Panther Party instead, after making a deal with the FBI to act as an informant. It’s an organization deemed by Martin Sheen, in a chilling performance as J. Edgar Hoover, as “the single greatest threat to National Security.” However, as Bill grows closer to its Chicago chapter leader, Fred Hampton, he sees how his defiant stance comes from necessity rather than a desire to cause upheaval. And in addition to his militant position needed to defend the community, Hampton is also intent on its empowerment, whether it be the free breakfast programs that the Panthers provide or the rainbow coalition formed with other disenfranchised groups. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when he and other Black Panther Party members go to a community meeting with a Confederate flag hanging behind the podium. And in a few galvanizing words, he convinces the poor whites in attendance that they too are being manipulated by a system rigged to keep them down.
This situation speaks volumes about our current political climate as well, as viewers can draw many parallels between then and now. The divide and conquer tactics used in the 60s seem all too familiar compared to recent activity in American politics over the last few years. And so, if anything, one thing that audiences can take away from it is how no one wins in such a situation. To uplift, unity, not separation, is what’s needed.
Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying as Fred Hampton, and something he and the film’s script do, masterfully, is depicted in how Hampton comes across as an imperfect human being. For example, there are scenes where he gets his followers riled up to fight the powers that be but then immediately backs down when members of the party show up with explosives to bomb a government building. Not to condone that either, but it illustrates that Hampton sometimes failed to realize his words’ power. And had he not done so, fewer people probably would’ve ended up in the crosshairs. And yet, Hampton remained blinded by his noble ambitions. A decisive moment is when his pregnant love interest says how it’s easier for him to give himself to the people because he doesn’t have someone else growing inside him. While it would be easier to make things very defined in black and white, the shades of gray are what make this film compelling, especially since we all sadly know Fred Hampton’s fate. William O’Neal’s lesser-known outcome is also revealed but is just as heart-breaking. The result of betrayal and guilt. In one case, a man paid the ultimate price for destroying the system. And in the other, a man paid the ultimate price for the system destroying him. It’s the journey that gets these people to this point that is so enthralling, and that’s where audiences can gain so much.
Judas and the Black Messiah is not just about Fred Hampton. It’s not just about overcoming an unjust environment. It’s not just about internal conflicts that can still make the right decisions difficult ones. This movie is a masterful mix of all three, and the result is a motion picture experience that people shouldn’t miss!