In the year 1968, a seventeen-year-old criminal William “Bill” O’Neal has just been arrested in Chicago for his unsuccessful attempt to impersonate a federal officer with the intent to hijack a car. Shortly thereafter, he finds himself in the company of FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell. If convicted, Bill faces lengthy prison sentence, but Roy has a proposition for him. He is to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and get as much information about its leader, Fred Hampton, as possible.
Right away, I find myself giving Shaka King’s sophomore effort a lot of credit for one particular scene involving Roy. On the back the momentum generated by the Civil Rights movement, several chapters for the Black Panther Party had sprung up across the United States by 1968. With his rhetoric, Roy implies that the Black Panther Party is just as dangerous to the security of the nation as the Ku Klux Klan. This is a tactic favored by ultraconservative factions and those who abuse their power: the false equivalence. There’s no need to improve yourself if you can successfully label your most vocal critics terrorists, after all. As FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a notoriously corrupt racist, it is no coincidence he would see them as one in the same.
Now, the actions of the Black Panther Party remain controversial to this day, which is something Mr. King’s film pointedly does not gloss over. While their ideals were noble, their attempts at achieving equality were occasionally more than a little questionable. Certain members’ attitudes about firearms weren’t so different than those of your average gun nut. Some of its members operated under the ethos that policemen who regularly beat up African Americans should leave their profession in a body bag. One such shootout is depicted in this film, which results in the office of the Black Panther Party being bombed.
Even so, to insinuate the Black Panther Party and the Ku Klux Klan are just as bad as one another is, at best, woefully ignorant. At worst, it’s practically a conflict of interest. At the end of the day, the Black Panther Party are nothing like the Ku Klux Klan. The former faction has much more skin in the game, championing equal rights for all United States citizens. Fred Hampton’s endgame is to unite his own chapter and form the multiracial Rainbow Coalition. The Ku Klux Klan, on the other hand, represent one race and one race only – and considering their lack of mainstream acceptance, they don’t even do that well. They fight for completely selfish reasons in a war against change – a war they are destined to lose in the long term.
What makes Judas and the Black Messiah such a masterful narrative is how, exactly, Mr. King is able to present his story. The name of the film itself is a rather significant clue as to how the story will pan out – assuming the viewer is not familiar with the historical event in the first place. Like the biblical figure Judas, Bill is tasked with getting close to a messiah figure in order to betray him, making Fred Hampton this story’s equivalent of Jesus Christ himself. As the film begins marching towards its conclusion, closer does the inevitable betrayal come. Considering how this event plays out with an idealistic messiah betrayed by someone he trusts, the story of Fred Hampton is worthy of being considered a parallel to Jesus’s.
At the risk of sounding a little cliché, I also found the film to be rather Shakespearean in nature. By that, I mean the story is structured so the audience spends almost as much time with its antagonist as it does the central focus. Specifically, the story of Fred Hampton is told from the perspective of the man who brought him down. It’s much like Othello wherein a little over half of the narrative is focused on Iago’s attempts to bring about the title character’s downfall. While more overtly sympathetic than Iago, Bill is given a similar amount of focus, as a generous portion of his scenes deals with his internal conflict about whether he should sabotage Fred Hampton’s chapter or sacrifice his own life for the greater good.
In a development that wouldn’t be out of place in a Shakespearean tragedy, Bill renders himself a cog for the forces of evil. After drugging Fred, the FBI moves in and murders the chapter leader in cold blood. Bill was, at the end of the day, a man who let his moral cowardice triumph over his conscience. Bill would continue to work as an FBI informant within the Black Panther Party, but in 1990, a documentary featuring him admitting to his involvement to this crime aired. That very night, he ran into traffic on Interstate 290 where he was struck and killed by a car. The death was ruled a suicide, and while his wife claimed it to be an accident, it is most likely not a coincidence that it happened to be the same night the documentary aired. In the end, he simply couldn’t live with the guilt of his own actions.
The ending is interesting in that it doesn’t pull any punches about how downbeat it is. After all, the government essentially got away with murdering a black man for the audacity of standing up for his beliefs. At the same time, though, it wasn’t a complete victory for J. Edgar Hoover or his task force. Even in the short term, he couldn’t stop progress from being made, and in the long term, African Americans would continue to break cultural barriers. Fred Hampton may have been murdered, but his ideals lived on. J. Edgar Hoover’s own actions, on the other hand, ensured he would be remembered as a villain by majority of the populace – a fate worse than death for someone who fancied himself a crusader of justice. On top of that, Fred Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr., would pick up where his father left off. The battle may have been lost, but any far-right racist who believed Fred’s colleagues would surrender in the following decades was gravely mistaken.
Judas and the Black Messiah makes for an interesting companion piece when watched side-by-side with Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, which was also nominated for best picture for the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony and depicted events occurring around the same time. Both are films written by people who successfully tie significant miscarriages of justice to contemporary grievances, imploring their audience to take a stand and prevent any similar tragedies from occurring ever again. Much like with The Trial of the Chicago 7, I think a lot of culture critics tend to use films like Judas and the Black Messiah to further the thesis that things haven’t changed since the events depicted therein occurred. Consequently, my view of the film is largely the same; a better takeaway than assuming things haven’t changed is that the cause it argues for is always going to ring true – even under the most ideal circumstances. To assume nothing has changed for the better, on top of being objectively incorrect, also does a major disservice to those fighting tooth and nail against significant flaws in the status quo.
Regardless, Judas and the Black Messiah succeeds in many of the same ways as The Trial of the Chicago 7. It’s a film that ruthlessly condemns the unscrupulous tactics employed by those in power when those without power dare criticize them. Just like Mr. Sorkin, Mr. King and follow cowriter Will Berson have a message for their audience, but never sacrifice any kind of applicability to get it across. They’re critical, but they know exactly where to aim their pointed attacks. This is laudable because it is so easy when making a film like Judas and the Black Messiah to be so angry that innocent parties take the brunt of the ire. Mr. King and his team weren’t, and their mixture of self-awareness and focus allowed them to succeed in ways many of their contemporaries couldn’t.
Final Score: 7/10