By Jason McCullum
If I had to take a shot in the dark, I would assume that those who have watched Judas and the Black Messiah have heard of Fred Hampton or William O’Neal prior to the film. Ultimately, not knowing Black stories is not uncommon. Many did not know about Ron Stallworth before seeing BlacKkKlansman, just as many did not know who Dorothy Vaughan was before Hidden Figures. Historical films are an excellent resource to acquire knowledge about important figures. But there is something that separates Fred Hampton’s story from Ron’s and Dorothy’s, Hampton uncovers flaws in an American government led program.
Judas and the Black Messiah is clearly not the only movie that has criticized the inner workings of a law enforcement agency. However, it stands out for giving an accurate representation of negative behaviors within the FBI, a group that has long been viewed as the pinnacle of bravery in the eyes of Hollywood. While the FBI has acted as a counter-terrorist group, much of their work during the Civil Rights Movement was unjustifiably villainous. They frequently investigated Martin Luther King Jr. and overall viewed the movement as one with heavy ties to communism.
The film revisits moments similar to these in an incredibly emotional way. Fred Hampton is accurately depicted as an admirable figure seeking out greatness for people by spreading love to build a community. The remarkable performance by Daniel Kaluuya helps to shed some light on how Hampton was a truly excellent human being that deserves far more praise in our modern culture. Kaluuya’s depiction of Hampton’s altruistic goals makes the violent actions of the FBI and the Chicago Police Force all the more heartbreaking. The audience sees Hampton for what he is, a well-hearted man who spreads peace, but knows he will use violence if he must. The FBI sees a threat, and the way that Hampton is taken down throughout the film is a whirlwind of emotional impact.
Maximizing the film’s potential is LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal. His performance offers a mesmerizing surplus of depth, toeing the line between true villain and tortured soul. The movie concludes with the acknowledgement that O’Neal’s own desire for material goods gets in the way of his ability to help in movements, such as the Black Panther Party. However, much of Stanfield’s fear throughout the picture humanizes him, making the viewer wonder whether he is truly out for his own vested interest or aggressively manipulated by the FBI. Stanfield’s O’Neal does experience moments of clarity in which he shows genuine care for the betterment of Black lives and the Black Panther Party; however, many of these are juxtaposed by the revelation that it was a stunt spearheaded by the FBI to gain more information.
Regardless, things end in a sickening place, hounding in an important message. O’Neal’s involvement in the murder of Hampton is a spellbinding conclusion, which is the ultimate moment in the movie capitalizing O’Neal’s betrayal of the Black community of Chicago. The vicious action spearheaded by the FBI helps to spread this idea of humans working for the betterment of themselves rather than others. It’s a heartbreaking affair to witness Hampton’s life come to a brutal end at the hands of such manipulation, but serves as a reminder for viewers that there are true forces of evil in the world that must be stopped in order for the human race to prevail. In the end, we are all human. We must look out for each other as such.
All around, Judas and the Black Messiah is so much more than a typical Civil Rights era movie. The fascinating story of Hampton and O’Neal helps to shine light on just how truly oppressed Black communities were and still are. The movie does an excellent job at recognizing that not all police officers or FBI agents are necessarily bad, but that the system at large is too quick to unfairly discriminate against Black lives. The wonderfully structured unraveling of O’Neal’s relationship with Hampton and the FBI as he struggles to accept what is right shows just how manipulative America is in terms of race relations. Security and defense systems have long desired to act against Black lives, taking away power that, sadly, was never even there. Though Hollywood has made this known before, Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the strongest examples yet.
Ultimately, what propels this movie are the magnificent performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield. Both have a rich sadness to them as Kaluuya makes the audience desire peace and unity amongst human beings while Stanfield reminds the audience about the tarnished views on race relations in America. Whether or not O’Neal is a true-hearted villain or an individual that is manipulated to the point of insanity is left up to the viewer to decide. Nonetheless, he carries an important message of the widespread craving humans have to hold power. However, when said power is awarded, it rarely does any good. Rather than seek the ability to show strength compared to others, working together in unity is not only more productive but more noble.