Judas and the Black Messiah is a confounding film. I might be the only one who thinks so, as unqualified praise pours in from everywhere. Critically lauded, nominated for major awards, and no doubt a good primer on Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, Judas and the Black Messiah nevertheless seems to me an uneasy combination of memorable scenes and rote ones, of powerful fact-based material and overly familiar genre film contrivances.
Of course, it’s possible I expected too much. Finally, after waiting to see Judas and the Black Messiah ever since it was announced back in 2019, here it is on HBO Max. And, admittedly, it’s exhilarating to see the charismatic Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, delivering lines from Hampton’s electrifying speeches like his triumphant “I am a revolutionary!” call and response.
He’s the “Black Messiah” foretold and feared by racist FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (played in monster makeup by Martin Sheen), who’s obsessed with Hampton’s rapidly growing status as an extraordinarily effective socialist organizer. Hampton’s building of the Rainbow Coalition from the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Appalachian Young Patriots into a revolutionary movement was more than enough to sound all the right alarm bells in American halls of power.
Hoover tasks agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) with the job of destroying Hampton as part of a larger campaign to infiltrate and undermine the burgeoning Black Panther Party. Mitchell is portrayed as a persuasive villain with a soft voice and steady smile that turns increasingly sinister, a character type we’ve seen many times before, particularly from Plemons. He’s given a lot of scenes steadily turning up the heat on “Judas,” aka William O’Neal (played by the talented LaKeith Stanfield of Sorry to Bother You), the small-time criminal coerced by Mitchell into doing the FBI’s dirty work.
Mitchell starts off by proving his liberal bona fides to O’Neal, indicating his support for the nonviolent efforts of the civil rights movement in contrast to the militant Black Panthers, whom he equates with the Ku Klux Klan. Mitchell becomes steadily more demonic, sometimes creating unintentionally comical effects such as when he appears, magically unnoticed, in an all-black crowd at a Panther rally, rattling O’Neal with the same fixed, unblinking smile.
But Hampton keeps getting edged off-screen in order to develop O’Neal’s predicament — finding Chairman Fred more and more persuasive, even as Mitchell twists his arm into setting him up for assassination. Not that it’s a bad narrative move, doing a dual portrait of Hampton and O’Neal, two black men destroyed in different ways by the FBI. But it’s so strained that it’s often distracting.
It’s no surprise to find out, from the many interviews with the Lucas Brothers — Keith and Kenny, who are usually associated with stand-up comedy but have been pitching this project since 2014 — that they had to rework the script outline a number of times, making changes after rounds of failed pitches to producers and studio heads who “didn’t really see the marketability of the idea.” Finally, they arrived at the winning pitch:
We want to make it like the 1970s crime, espionage, thriller, and the grain of The Conformist or The French Connection. We want it to feel like, gritty and ‘70s, but we also want it to tell the story of Fred Hampton.
But even with Shaka King attached to direct, Ryan Coogler producing, and the lead actors on board, raising sufficient money proved difficult, with the project still being dismissed as “a period piece about an obscure Black Panther, and a socialist to boot.” The Lucas Brothers also claim they were caught between genres — the biopic versus the thriller — and decided their “framing device” focusing on O’Neal’s betrayal of Hampton was the best move:
It instantly makes it an espionage thriller, and you can avoid typical biopic tropes . . . You want to make sure you have it in a genre that allows you to tell the big parts of his life and get a snapshot of the message but also gets people to actually watch the film.
It’s weird to find myself objecting to genre film tropes — me, the biggest genre film booster ever — but I can’t help regretting it here. There are some powerful sequences, especially given the skill and dynamism of the actors, but the real-life source material is so much richer than is even briefly sketched in the film.
There’s not a clear enough sense of just how extraordinary Hampton was all of his short life, and how fast he was rising. Even a cursory account is awe-inspiring, with Hampton having forged the Rainbow Coalition with the Panthers, the Latino Young Lords, the white Young Patriots, the socialist Poor People’s Coalition, the American Indian Movement, and the Chinese-American collective the Red Guard — all before the age of twenty-one.
When he was murdered in 1969, Hampton wasn’t just chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers — he was, in all likelihood, ascending to a position of national leadership in the Black Panther Party itself. In the documentary Eyes on the Prize II, it’s ironically the real-life William O’Neal who testifies to the challenge Hampton presented to the FBI, which tried every trick in the book to get him on some kind of criminal rap, finally framing him for the theft of $71 worth of ice cream bars, an event depicted in the film.
We tried to develop negative information to discredit him . . . “we” meaning the FBI. I tried to come up with signs of him doing drugs or something, but never could. He was clean. He was dedicated.
Which brings us to O’Neal himself, who, in his own disturbing way, makes almost as lasting an impression in that documentary as Fred Hampton himself. According to the Lucas Brothers, as soon as they saw the interview footage, they were obsessed with capturing O’Neal’s story as well. It’s a riveting confession, all right — O’Neal is disquietingly blank and matter-of-fact while rationalizing the role he played in Hampton’s murder: “I didn’t walk in there with guns. I didn’t shoot him.”
Then he begins to stutter as he actually discusses the raid: “[T]he information, the, the, the, the, the information leading up to the raid, I mean, I knew it would be a raid, but I didn’t think anyone would get killed, especially not Fred, you know.” O’Neal’s fate, which is revealed at the end of Judas and the Black Messiah, is all the more dramatic after watching this footage.
Given the expressionlessness displayed by the real-life O’Neal, which must have been one of his key assets while working as an FBI informant, it’s rather strange how Stanfield plays him as a desperate, erratic figure, inclined toward emoting and overreaction. He’s introduced committing a robbery by impersonating an FBI agent in order to “confiscate” a car, wearing a trench coat and fedora and behaving in such an uneasy manner that he fails to convince anyone. Other scenes convey such naked, conflicted emotion about what he’s being forced to do that it’s hard to believe O’Neal wouldn’t have been readily discovered as a rat.
When O’Neal offers Hampton the drink that is heavily drugged in order to make sure Hampton is easy prey for the FBI team sent to kill him (something that real-life O’Neal denies having done), Stanfield plays O’Neal as shaking visibly, with tears clearly in his eyes. Who among the Black Panthers, by then highly aware of the presence of informants in their midst, would take that drink offered by a crying, quaking man?
In real-life, O’Neal was such a hard case that the Lucas Brothers decided early on that his more brutal acts would have to be censored in order to keep viewers’ sympathy:
Rather than depict O’Neal torturing a Black Panther, ostensibly to weed out a rat, the writers include a separate informant placed in another chapter of the Panthers who tortures an innocent person to burnish his own credibility. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it solution that accurately portrays the despicable carnage the FBI unleashed on the Panthers, while possibly keeping the audience from fully despising O’Neal.
As canny as the filmmakers’ choices may have been in getting Judas and the Black Messiah to the screen, it still feels like a project formulated to appease both the Hollywood executives who dismissed Fred Hampton as a worthy subject and audiences who demand “likable” main characters, unable or unwilling to deal with the brutality of a society that created the real William O’Neal. It’s enough to make you despair — the endless childhood of America, and the baby steps toward any serious reckoning with our history or shared reality.
But, looking on the bright side, this film represents one small step in the right direction, flaws and all. And that’s worth something.