Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

Fred Hampton may not have been the Fred Hampton we see on screen when he first joined the Black Panther Party. But by the time of his death, his sole existence centered around black liberation. And one can never separate that singleness of mind from the man himself. Judas and the Black Messiah succeeded in my view due to how it examined the costs of such efforts. And it’s not because the film questions the sincerity of Fred’s mission, or that of the Black Panther Party. The film is 100% behind their efforts. But Shaka King’s examination also dives deep into the mind of William O’Neal. He was an FBI informant and former Panther who contributed to Fred’s death. Some may say that he did everything but pull the trigger himself. Given the mission of the Black Panthers, how and why was he able to commit such actions? That’s an easy answer, provided by one of Fred's heroes, Malcolm X.
He answered that question for us many years ago when he stated that "A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything."

The absence of an identity seems to define William O'Neal from start to finish in this film. We learn in the film that before joining the F.B.I. as an informant, he was nothing but a two-bit hustler. His petty schemes lead him into the hands of law enforcement and FBI special agent Roy Mitchell. And at this point, O'Neal begins to develop an identity, albeit an inauthentic one. But this appears to be something that O'Neal himself has always wanted. When asked by Mitchell why he used a fake FBI badge during his attempt to steal a car his answer stuns the agent. "A badge is scarier than a gun," he says. And in a 1989 interview shortly before he took his own life, he echoed a similar sentiment. While he shows a disdain for the Chicago P.D., his high opinion of the F.B.I. still remained intact years after the fact. He described the F.B.I. as "a much more effective organization than the policemen." He also believed, at the time, that the "FBI made me a better person."

Given that a few interviews and his own untimely demise is all that we have to go on, that seems unlikely. As portrayed in the film by Lakeith Stanfield, O’Neal is conflicted over his role as an informant. But he is also attracted to the duplicity of the scheme. As well as the invincibility that being a state sponsor provides. But the prestige that the FBI offers won't allow him to overcome the psychological battle that takes place for his soul. This comes about as he realizes that the FBI’s depiction of the Panthers don’t match up with what he’s seeing on the ground. But by then, it’s too late. And he has failed to realize what we’ve known all along. Which is that his identity and purpose was never his own.

As Fred Hampton, Kaluuya is someone who know’s exactly where his head is at. There’s a determination, sensitivity, and compassion in Kaluuya's performance. And it draws you towards Fred’s message. Even when it’s at its most incendiary. Despite the police brutality that’s become an everyday part of life, he remains focused on black liberation. And in his speeches, I didn’t hear a man channeling hate. I heard the words of a man channeling injustice. I heard the words of a man channeling the spirit of Malcolm, as he was determined to stand for something. It's just unfortunate that he just so happened to cross paths with folks like William O'Neal. And run afoul of J. Edgar Hoover. In the end it seems like Hoover and O'Neal were made for each other. O'Neal had no identity and was provided with one by the U.S. government. Hoover seems to be purely defined by his reign over the FBI. And it seems like both were especially threatened by a man who showed them what it meant to actually stand for something.

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