“I’ll let history speak for me,” says the real William O’Neal in an archival interview at the end of Judas and the Black Messiah, and it’s a choice that’s both haunting due to what followed and understandable due to everything that came before. His story is the focus of director Shaka King‘s sophomore feature, and while its events occurred a half century ago they’re sadly every bit as relevant today.
O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is a small-time car thief with a unique approach as he uses a fake FBI badge and a little bit of acting to steal vehicles from unsuspecting owners. His latest attempt lands him in police custody, and real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) sees an opportunity. Faced with jail time, O’Neal instead goes undercover for the FBI as an informant in the Black Panthers. The agency’s primary target is the group’s chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who they fear is on his way to becoming a messiah for Black Americans. O’Neal’s perfectly content snitching on and setting up Hampton and other Panthers, but as his relationships and concerns grow so do his doubts as to what exactly he’s doing.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful, infuriating film highlighting the actions and decisions made by authorities against American citizens. It’s summed up early on when Mitchell asks O’Neal about his peculiar method of robbery, and the man replies simply “The badge is scarier than the gun.” It’s a simple observation, but it’s one that runs heavy throughout the film and history itself. From the head of the FBI down to racist beat cops on Chicago’s streets, the film captures the heartbreaking, rage-inducing reality facing Black Americans before, during, and after its 1969 setting.
The story is key, but it’s the performances that help elevate the film beyond mere biopic material. Stanfield’s O’Neal reveals a man whose actions are fueled by selfishness and personal survival. He has no interest in the Black revolution and only wants to stay out of jail, but Stanfield lets small cracks reveal themselves at precise moments — a quick look of concern or regret flashes across his face even as his actions outweigh them. O’Neal is conflicted, but again and again it’s his own skin he prioritizes over others who share its color. He’s a traitor on the wrong side of history, but the institutions of American government and police departments have also made him a victim.
Kaluuya has the showier role as the charismatic Hampton, and the pain we already feel knowing his character’s fate is magnified through small moments we’re given between him and fellow Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). He’s an outsized character, made bigger through speeches that command the room, but these glimpses of a softer, smaller, more everyday human being serve as a reminder of what Hampton and today’s Black Lives Matter protesters are fighting for. Fishback shines in the small role, and viewers would be well-served by seeking out her underseen debut, Night Comes On (2018).
There are numerous themes running through Judas and the Black Messiah, but one of its strongest is the idea that even as the world applies pressures both unfair and unwelcome, our choices remain our own. Hampton is fighting but knows where to draw the line — his infamous “Kill a few pigs” line is included here, but it’s rhetoric and symbolism as opposed to an actual desire to murder police officers. Other Panthers move that line dramatically and take some cops with them to the grave. O’Neal views himself as a reluctant part of the struggle and chooses his own hide at the end of the day, and Agent Mitchell is no different. He too shows glimmers of reluctance, but he lacks the conviction needed to stand up and speak out. Others, though, the majority across this land, choose to ignore the fight all together. It’s that last group with whom the film needs to resonate most.
As with most films based on historical events, viewers may not learn much new on the subject as Judas and the Black Messiah‘s focus is on well-known players and events, but some will — and the importance of ongoing learning can’t be understated. Hampton was only twenty-one years-old when police executed him in a raid instigated by the FBI. He accomplished so much with his words and actions in such a short time and was silenced far too easily, but in a world of Hamptons and O’Neals… more of us need to choose to be like Hampton.